There is no trivial comment. You may have noticed this. As a result of something you don’t even remember saying years ago, someone who was looking to you for guidance and approval is still in therapy! Or they are grateful to you to this day. Each time we speak, we soothe panic attacks or cause them, leave people feeling charred or uplifted. We leave an emotional wake. What you heard, what you feel. The aftermath, aftertaste, or afterglow. And we are often misinterpreted.
A CEO who was frustrated with the results of his attempts to communicate with his executives mused . . .
What I get to say is not what I want to say,
is not what they listen to,
is not what they hear,
is not what they understand,
is not what they remember when I’m gone.
What do I want them to remember when I’m gone?
I need to say that, and only that . . . clearly!
If we are capable of living our lives at times unconscious of what others are thinking and feeling when they are right in front of us, imagine how easy it is to toss off an email, text or tweet, blithely unaware of our emotional wake’s effect on others.
There is a toll for such unconsciousness. In the business world, even a brief hallway comment or email can cause resentment, misunderstandings, plane wrecks.
Consider the following real-life incident from T&D Magazine.
A CEO who thought he saw too few parked cars early and late in the day blasted an angry email to 400 managers. He complained that the employees weren’t working enough hours. An employee forwarded the CEO’s email outside the company, and it was posted on Yahoo.com. Stock market analysts and investors found out and were concerned that negative events at the company were behind such an angry message from the CEO.
The New York Times picked up the story.
The company’s stock price fell 22 percent, from US$44 to $34 in just three days.
That CEO learned a lesson the hard way. Plan your messages instead of sending out impulsive emails. His thoughtless actions not only harmed his reputation as a leader but also severely affected his company’s profitability. A two-minute reader-analysis process could have helped him avoid that catastrophe.
The wake of our comments is amplified when all we have are words on a screen because we will put our personal spin on everything sent our way. We make up stories and behave as if our stories are true, and we often go to the dark side, attaching meaning, agenda and intent that may or may not be anything close to what the sender had in mind. Just try to tell someone that what he or she took from your text or tweet is not at all what you meant. No deal! They’ve pitched their tent on their interpretation and intend to camp there indefinitely.
So why do we persist in emailing, texting and tweeting when we know that a conversation would produce better results?
At Fierce, one of our prior interns, Areya Popal, suggested that the smartphone, to which our thumbs have become grafted, which we use to send emails, tweet, text and inform our Facebook friends that we just bought an espresso machine or that our cat coughed up a gigantic hair ball (we could have done without the photo, thanks very much) creates the opportunity to exchange dialogue without the vulnerability of fully revealing ourselves. He explained, “When communication takes place online, important pieces of dialogue are left unsaid, emphasis and emotion are almost void and the conversation becomes similar to computer code, just 1’s and 0’s. And because technology creates more of a reaction than an exchange, participants become less eager to say what they mean for fear of stepping on toes or saying the wrong thing, and thus beat around the bush or fail to get across important information.”
Admit it. There is something cowardly about all this texting and tweeting. We won’t be present to witness or respond to someone’s negative reaction. We’re like Woody Allen who said, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be in the room when it happens.”
You could argue that we communicate online out of expediency, efficiency. We want to convey a thought and boom, we’re done. The trouble is, texting and tweeting is like water skiing, skimming the surface of a topic, whereas having a conversation is like putting on a scuba tank, a deeper dive that opens to richer worlds. The question for all of us to answer is—does the time we save sending out texts and tweets add to or detract from our relationships?
Stacey Engle, EVP of Marketing at Fierce, puts it this way: “We think we know a lot about each other, but most of it is superficial. For some, posting, tweeting, garnering likes and recommendations is addictive, and yet true connection is also addictive. Any time spent on texting, tweeting and posting is time not spent on connecting.”
It’s hard to acknowledge that our offhand comments are sometimes powerful diminishments. What if we throttled back and considered our intention? Sending an email, text or tweet with no clear intent is a risky proposition. After I suggested this to a client named George, he told me the following story:
When I was pitching for my college baseball team, the catcher would often walk out to the mound when I was in trouble and ask me if I had an idea about what I was doing. And what he was referring to is that behind my next pitch would be an intent, a result that I wanted, which would then determine if I’d throw a fastball low and away, a fastball high and tight, a change-up, a slider, a curveball. So what looks like one man throwing a ball to another man with a big club in his hand is actually a well-thought-out strategy by both parties, because the batter also has an intent, a result that he’s after. Trouble is, during too many of my conversations, I don’t have a clue where I am going, what I am trying to do, what my intent is. Everyone thinks I’m in the conversation. After all, my mouth is open or I’m nodding my head, but I’m just throwing a ball with no intent or purpose behind it. My only hope is for extra innings so I can buy a little time and clarify what I’m trying to accomplish.
It’s the idea behind our words that matters. While we all have the right to disagree and to confront issues that are troubling us, what might we do differently if we realized that we may be losing emotional capital one text, one tweet at a time.
I often recall my mother’s advice: If in doubt, don’t! Get in touch with your intent, be it noble or sinister. If your intent is sinister, now is not the time to communicate in any format. If you suspect that something you wish to text or tweet could be misinterpreted, you’re right, so don’t!
Perhaps these guidelines will be helpful:
DO TEXT OR TWEET WHEN YOUR INTENT IS TO. . .
- communicate logistics and simple directives
- share small praises and appreciation
- connect on special occasions
- share a personal epiphany or accomplishment
- talk through simple scenarios
DON’T TEXT OR TWEET IF YOUR INTENT IS TO. . .
- respond to criticism - especially a knee-jerk, emotional response
- convey anger
- attack, berate, mock, blame
Our emotional wake determines the story that is told about us when we’re not in the room. It’s the story that will be told about us after we’re gone. It can be a wonderful story that makes us smile or a painful story with a tragic ending. The fact is, we are what we leave behind.
What do you want people to remember when you’re gone? Are you saying it . . . clearly? Do you want to be described as a mentor or a tormentor? What is the legacy you want to leave? If the people in your organization could tell one story about you, what would you want it to be?
Many of the great leaders with whom I have worked sustain a love affair with their work and their lives. They place their attention at the service of deep, long-term concepts and convictions in the workplace and at home. They have become sensitized to the effect they have on others, increasingly aware of the wake caused by their words and actions. They have said to themselves, in one way or another, “Taking responsibility for my emotional wake is my challenge and my opportunity.”
Their perspective and goals have shifted as they recognized that leadership must be for the world. They accept the responsibility to be present, aware, authentic, appropriate, truthful and clear. When a conversation would serve everyone better than a text, they have the conversation.
Our most valuable currency is not money. Nor is it intelligence, attractiveness, self-sufficiency or charisma.
It is relationship. It is emotional capital, which we acquire or squander one conversation, one text or tweet, at a time.