Good Intentions

You have received an invitation to a party. It's a month away, so you put it aside. There is plenty of time to answer; you have more urgent calls to make. A friend became a grandparent; you meant to send a card but never got to a store to pick one up. A subordinate made an excellent presentation; you make a mental note to congratulate him. Your boss was on TV; you plan to say something about it the next time you see her. A colleague's project got funded; you will send a note when you have a minute. The staff meeting you attended was well run and very productive; you were going to mention it to the group leader but had to leave early. You meant to return those phone calls but misplaced the little message slip.

So what happened?

You never answered the party invitation, which got buried under a pile of papers and your irate friend called the day before the event to ask whether you're coming or not. You apologize for being a boor or you lie about not having received it.

You never got to congratulate your subordinate, your boss, your colleague, nor the group leader. You also didn't return the phone calls. It wasn't the right time, you forgot or it didn't seem appropriate days later.

What I'm writing about is all too common. It happens to most of us. We don't give positive feedback the importance it requires. Some people feel awkward giving a compliment; others believe it's not necessary, thinking: "When somebody does a good job, he or she knows about it and doesn't need to be told."

Not true! Everyone appreciates a comment, the notice of a job well done, a pat on the back. Too few ever get it.

Even if you're the type that gets embarrassed when complimented, remember most people appreciate it. It means that you not only noticed, but you cared enough to say so -- you extended yourself in a gesture of friendship. So next time, don't make it a mental note, make it a memo and send it out immediately. Don't end your day before returning the calls and emails and sharing your feedback.

Make it a priority to stop by your boss's office and congratulate her personally. Call up your colleague that night and say how pleased you were to hear of the funding. Tell your subordinate how proud you are of him. Acknowledge to the team leader how much you appreciated the productivity of the meeting, respond to that party invitation the day you receive it, and return those calls or risk forgetting them all together.

Friends have birthdays, publish books, give great parties and go on trips. Taking note of these events, remembering, congratulating and showing pleasure at their accomplishments are all meaningful manifestations of one's caring. What is friendship if not participating in each other's lives. And when painful things happen to friends, it is even more necessary to call and show concern. A friend of mine just got divorced under very negative and public circumstances. She said I was the only one to call.

The same thing happens when someone dies. Maybe you send a card, and you intend to call, but you don't because it's hard to know what to say. You feel uncomfortable and awkward because you wish to be helpful but don't know how. The intention is there, but the follow up is postponed until a more propitious time, which of course never arrives.

In my college alumni newsletter I read that a former classmate's husband had died. I had had no contact with her for many years but made a point of sending my condolences. She wrote back how important it was to have heard from me. When I see her at our next reunion, we will reconnect better because of my note.

As I was flipping through channels this week, I saw a friend from Washington, D.C. on television talking about her latest book. I called her right away to congratulate her. I could tell from her voice how pleased she was that I did. It was worth it for both of us, and it cemented an already good friendship even more.

So, for better or for worse, notice and be there with condolences or congratulations. It is the small, unexpected gestures that matter most.