Why your comments never amount to much – and how to fix them


Maybe you missed the mudslinging fest earlier this week or the follow-up article that talked about good manners.

I didn’t. These recent discussions here got me thinking about the 40-some years I’ve been adjusting my own words. Whether written or spoken, I’ve tried to strike a balance between brutal honesty and political correctness.

Not that I’ve arrived yet, but I press toward that goal with fervor, commitment, and discipline. But what’s the goal?

1. Passion is my transport, not my destination. Too often I let passion take me to the dark side. I abandon decorum and proceed full speed ahead. The result is usually that I injure others needlessly. So I temper my passion with discipline, an ugly word for some. It’s simply too easy to “burn the toast” (i.e., go too far) in making my point.

2. Never automatically dismiss a comment or complaint. Early in my life, I did exactly that. If that person was volatile or abusive – rejected! If I didn’t like or respect them – outta here! What I learned, that became quite effective, was to filter the things I didn’t like and focus on the message. Sometimes the feedback was important to my growth, however poorly stated or hard it was to hear. I have made some profound adjustments by evaluating the merits of feedback sans the delivery. And I’ve developed some great relationships in the process. Of course, in extreme cases, I could — and did — dismiss the statement.

3. Avoid name calling and other labels/phrases that will denigrate someone or put them on the defensive. There are cases when my relationship with the person or group “grants” me the privilege to be more direct. Otherwise, such responses (by me) rarely succeed in advancing a discussion or achieving meaningful change. Better to make my case politely and firmly without the edginess. And I avoid entering into a pointless fight with someone by keeping it professional.

4. Unless dangerous actions are in play, articulate your case as if arguing before the Supreme Court. These days, I want less to win than I do to be clearly understood. And I can’t do that by shouting, name calling, or “throwing things.” I’ve found that you can be direct without being cruel. Cite meaningful sources, and accept challenges when they come and are valid. Many times this gives a chance to clarify a point you thought was understood in the piece.

5. Consider your audience both compassionately and intellectually. How can I best articulate my thoughts? Are my words needlessly harsh? Have I respected (different than being PC) the other person with my final choice of words? I practice a few things in this area that I like and believe are effective:

“I don’t believe your statement is supportable” vs “You are wrong/stupid.”

“Could you cite some examples to support your position” vs “I call BS.”

“It seems that you believe/like …” vs. “You are/are a …”

And so on. I push myself pretty hard with this principle. In the end, it’s up to the recipient to process my words, but I rest easy with the conviction that I didn’t “react.” I choose my words with the utmost care and consideration of others.

6. “Patience, grasshopper.” I will often pause, re-read, set aside, and come back to a response later. This wisdom has, I believe, saved a lot of pain.

7. Does it, am I, is this, what is, and am I. This is a checklist I use every time (OK, so I fail sometimes, but then I pay the price). It goes like this:

Does it really need to be said? Wow, how many times I have swallowed my passion and pride and accepted the honest answer: “No.”

Am I the right one to say it? If I conclude (after sufficient pause) that it needs to be said, it is vital to ask if I’m the best delivery person. Relationship to the recipient is critical here, as is my expertise and ability to remain dignified in my response. It’s a hard one to pull off, but I have declined to say something even when relationship exists because our views are so different or I see someone else being a better messenger. If you hate humble pie, this step will be difficult.

Is this the right time to say something? My daughter comes to mind on this. Even if I’m the best messenger, a needed comment may fall flat, be ignored, or even do significant damage if it’s mistimed. I’ve had to bite my tongue and wait for the right opening many times. My wife is terrific at this, and I’ve taken a cue from her invariable success with this. Drives me nuts sometimes, but I draw wisdom from her strength in this area.

What is the likely response? This is a critical checkpoint before proceeding. There’s nothing worse than considering all the prior questions and then kicking yourself for wasting everyone’s time. That said, there are times when something must be said regardless of consequences, because the need to take action far outweighs the consequences of doing nothing.

Am I prepared for unintentional consequences? In every action or response I’ve found it wise to consider that the response may be the opposite of what I hoped for. I steel myself against results I did not anticipate and/or did not want. That way I’m less likely to experience regret.

My hope is that some of this will make its way into future discussions here.

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