When my grandfather was once asked by a banker whether a dear friend of his of 20 years was trustworthy, he famously said, "I don't know, I've never seen his back against the wall." I always wondered what he meant; after all, he had known the guy for most of his life. But, as a professional, and now a parent, I am acutely more aware of what he was really saying.
Every day, we are faced with situations that offer an opportunity to be reactive, to release that inner child who wants to throw a tantrum when things don't go our way. But, as my grandfather was implying, the way we handle difficult people and difficult situations speaks a lot about our true character. And, in a business setting, as in our personal lives, there is a lot that can go wrong. And we never know who is watching when a telling moment arises. So, here are a few words of advice (that I frequently have to remind myself, I might add), as you walk through this sometimes- rocky-journey we call life.
1. Take a breath (or a walk) before you react. In the media, we see a lot of public figures issuing apologies after speaking without thought, think Paula Deen, Sarah Palin and Mel Gibson. Especially when angry, it's easy for any of us to respond emotionally or with abandon. But, once words are out there, you can't take them back -- especially when they are on the record. Consider the many ways a message can be received or misinterpreted. No one ever regretted taking a beat before speaking, so give yourself the necessary time... to consider the next four points.
2. If you have any hesitation, phone a friend. Tense situations often lead to tunnel vision, where it becomes difficult to understand the perspective of other audiences. Especially in a high stakes situation, ask someone whose advice you trust to offer feedback -- but not someone who may agree with anything you say (like a parent). This is a moment when the tough love of a friend or trusted colleague will serve you.
3. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Being a skeptic of all will shut out the good intentions of most. Most of us are coming from a good place, but are ultimately reacting to our own fears, worries or concerns. Use empathy when considering the actions of others and give people the opportunity to act kindly.
4. Consider the long-term impact. While in the moment, it may be hard to remember that the world can be very small and people talk. Even if not immediate, you never know how your reputation and seemingly unnoticed actions will follow you later in life. This could mean a future job or relationship dictated by a seemingly small, but telling moment.
5. Take the high road, even when it hurts. In the end, it may only mean a clear conscience. But, ultimately, being the mature and thoughtful person, could create a ripple effect. The best way to be a good leader is by being a good example. And sometimes choosing to not indulge the inner child and swallowing the perfect one-liner will serve you best. After all, it's unlikely your attempt at humorous comebacks will lead you to a career like Kathy Griffin or Sarah Silverman.