Say Everything....That Matters

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Leadership Lesson #2: Say Everything That Matters.

(This is Part 2 of a 3-Part series that I recently delivered to the Uppercase Conference. In case you missed it, Part 1 is here.)

When I say “Say Everything that Matters” I don’t mean say everything that is in your head. Some of your thoughts aren’t worth repeating or communicating. Some things you just shouldn’t say.  

If we really said everything we were thinking? We’d have no friends and our families would disown us. Let’s be real. I like to say:

When you are causal with your words, your words create casualties.

When you see someone going in the wrong direction, being able to assertively and respectfully approach them and say what everyone else is thinking is the hallmark of a great leader. Say what will make a difference AND leave their humanity in tact. All too often we go overboard and make a mess.

The truth is, no one wants to approach the person who seems unapproachable. No one wants to, not even me sometimes.

I want to tell you a story about a conversation I had with someone over 20 years ago because it made a huge difference on my ability to lead.

I was in a leadership program with about 30 other people. The program happened over nine months and we were together a lot. We formed a deep bond with each other and began to socialize as well as train together.  With one exception.

There was a guy, I’ll call him Paul, who we never included.  He was a big guy, about 6’4 with dark hair and brooding eyes. He rarely smiled.

The other women in the group and I used to gossip about what a jerk he was because we felt like either he either wanted to “kill us or kiss us."  We purposefully excluded him from our social activities although he’d find out and show up anyway. 

At the end of our nine months together, at the final weekend, as everyone was wrapping up and saying goodbye, Paul stood off to one side. He looked pissed.

As I watched him observing everyone, I thought about all I had learned over the last nine months about being a great leader and had a conversation with myself.

How could I lead others if I was willing to exclude even one person because of stories I had made up? I knew none of my stories were real because I had never gone out of my way to talk to him and get to know him.

I mustered up all my courage and walked up to him. I stared up into his face and looked deeply into his eyes. There were so black I could not even see his pupils.

“Paul, I owe you an apology. I’ve never gone out of my way to make friends with you. I’ve had this feeling the whole time that you were just angry and that made me want to stay away from you. Did I do something to upset you? If so, I want to make it right.”

At that moment, that big tough guy’s eyes began to tear up and his lip began to tremble ever so slightly. A large tear rolled down his cheek, and in a whisper he said:

“My wife left me three years ago and took my kids back to Sweden. She won’t let me see them. I’ve been heartbroken and shut down ever since. I don’t know what to do with myself.”

I took his big hand in mine and walked him over to a chair. I sat for the next 30 minutes and just listened to him pour out his heart. Then we sat next to each other on the 2-hour bus ride from Philadelphia to DC and I continued to listen. During that time others on the bus came over, listened and apologized. By the end of that trip we were all deeply connected.

Paul and I are still friends. He attributes my courage to cracking his shell. “That was the beginning Jen.”

I had enough courage to approach Paul on the last day of our course. I wish I had approached him nine months earlier. I don’t regret what happened because I learned a valuable lesson.

When we listen to the stories in our heads and play out how things are going to go, we are wasting time and squandering opportunities.

We’ve already established that the stories in your head are not real.

As a leader, we must find the courage to say everything that needs to be said. We want to be of service to others BUT always ensure that the person you are talking to is better for having had that conversation with you.

How you manage your relationships with the people is indicative of how you lead.

Why did I approach Paul? What did I think I was going to get from it?

I chose to confront the situation because confrontation can be an offering.  We often think confrontation is bad, but it can be a platform for understanding.

Confrontation creates a platform for people to communicate their story to us. For that to happen, you’ve got to let go of your stories and sit down for some real one- on-one communication. Start by communicating your opinion as an opinion, not the truth. Ask questions instead of making statements. Give them a platform to communicate with you.

By being open, you show that you care, and are interested in them not as their stories but as who they really are.  You let them know you want to understand them.

You can only lead people through understanding.

People won’t follow unless they understand who you are, AND they won’t take the time to get to understand you until you take the time to understand them. Who is this person in front of me? What do they care about? What’s important to them? Who are they really—devoid of any stories you’ve been telling yourself.

Saying everything breaks down the barriers between you and others.

When you say everything, you discover hidden secrets in people’s hearts and thereby have a better understanding of how to relate to them and how to lead them.