When I was in business school, they called it a “Lisa Kohn” if you were talking about someone and they were right behind you. Seriously, they did. I wish I could say that I did nothing to deserve that reputation, but I’m afraid that’s not true. I am happy to report however, that while the bad news is that my time in business school was way too many years ago, the good news is that I no longer think I would earn or deserve that bad rap.
I’ve worked hard to watch what I say and to be more mindful and Thoughtful before I open my mouth. It’s not really that difficult to think before you speak, it’s just something I hadn’t practiced much when I was younger. It was a muscle I needed to build. I was, am, and will most likely always be someone who thinks best by thinking out loud. I process verbally, preferably with someone else listening (and hopefully taking notes). But learning to think before speaking is an important muscle to build. It’s one that I stress my clients build as well. I, with some embarrassment, offer myself and my past mishaps as real-life examples of the hazards of speaking while thinking. And often those stories are enough to scare them into wanting to change their approach.
One way that I see the “speaking as I think” approach really hurting my clients – and many leaders – is the tendency to speak without fully thinking through who might be in the room to hear you, or who might not be in the room but still might “hear” you anyway. And even trickier, thinking through what you could say that might run the risk of offending someone, whether that is your intention or not.
I have counseled clients to carefully monitor what they say, because you never know what hidden truths the people you’re speaking with might have. I’ve read of a woman who was half African American and half Caucasian, but who looked “white.” She shared how people would tell racist jokes, or make racist comments, around her, never realizing her background. I have something in my past that very few people, at least strangers, know about that people have “joked” about in my presence, not knowing that their “jokes” caused me pain.
We just never know. We never know, as we speak of any sensitive (or slightly sensitive) topic, who we run the risk of offending. We never even know if a topic that we think is benign, that could never offend anyone, is somehow a trigger point for someone we’re speaking with. We never really know.
I’m not suggesting that we aim for complete political correctness, whitewashing everything we say and never taking a stance on any topic. I am suggesting that we carefully think through what’s about to come out of our mouths, so that we can self-regulate when necessary.
Inevitably, we all have those moments when we wish we could take back the words that just spilled from our mouths. That’s when it’s hugely important to have built up credibility and strong relationships with others around us. Then, when we do mess up, when we do say something that we wished we hadn’t, we’re more likely to receive the benefit of the doubt from others. We want them to “know” that we’re well-intentioned and good-meaning, so that a slip – or an inadvertent, unintentional offensive comment – can be written off as a blip in an otherwise good character.
Habits like speaking without thinking it through first die hard, but they can die. Or at least be mostly gone. I’m happy to say that when I now share this story with others, they look at me in disbelief. Maybe I’ve gotten much better at thinking through what I’m going to say before I say it. At least most of the time.
How have you changed a habit that was getting in your way?
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For support in thinking, speaking, and leading more Thoughtfully, contact Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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