Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How to Tell the Truth

I'd like to share a news flash that hit me after several years into my corporate career. It was one of those Life Memos that seemed to have been delivered to all the rich kids’ houses, but skipped over the chain-link-fence, Virgin-Mary-statue-in-the-front-yard estates of my Missouri hometown:

Just because you’re thinking it, you don’t have to say it.

Self censorship was not a concept I understood or even saw in action until I began to have grown-up jobs -- defined, for me, as places that employed more men than women (the public library and the all-girls’ high school didn’t count). Once I began to elbow my way into advertising agencies and corporations, I realized that not everyone conducted their lives in the manner of my parents.

Meaning: Sometimes, they shut up.

At my house, talking was a competitive sport, with top honors to the loud and the fast. With my current perspective on what an incredibly crappy life she had, I realize that the telephone was a life-line for my mother, connecting her with Eileen, Thelma, Marcella and all her other anachronistically monikered friends. I don’t remember any quiet from the phone when she was on it, so that means she didn’t waste much time listening. But man, could she talk. She was a devotee of the Continuous Loop School of Human Interaction, meaning that as the point of her story wound to a conclusion, it started up again at the introduction, through the insertion of the magic three-word set, Like I Say, which allowed for a complete reboot of all previously uttered information. It could go on for days.

My father, as he did in the rest of his life, relied on brute force and lung power to maintain the conversational top spot. Visitors would be treated to verbal displays that were only logical for a man who hogged everything, including food, stuff and physical space. He needed it all, and he never had enough. In our house, he even hogged the airwaves. “Listen, uhhhhhhhh,” he would shout to new arrivals, the “uhhhhhhh” serving as a noise placeholder until he could think of something to actually say. No one ever bothered to interrupt.

So I grew up believing that talking was winning, and that each of my brain’s thoughts deserved a complete airing in front of as many people as possible, often repeatedly.  I only learned to behave any differently because I watched some skillful corporate operators in action, and I picked up a few tips, most of them, tragically, far too late. So when Emma recently asked me for advice about how to talk when what you said has implications on others’ lives, I could only offer some guidelines, most of which I’ve usually failed to follow.

She was asking for the advice because there had been a rule-breaking incident at her school. With 57 kids who are living together in a foreign country, their lives are a 3D Venn diagram of who knew what, who did what, and who like, should have like, spoken up sooner. Emma proclaimed her innocence, but told me that she anticipated a few official questions being lobbed her way (they call the principal “Comrade,” if that gives you any idea) and wanted to know what she should say. “Write down some rules for me,” she instructed, “So I can remember them Monday morning.”

Here they are. If I could go back in time and give these rules to my twenty-year-old self, and follow them, I’d be writing this from my penthouse at Columbus Circle, just before I headed off to another fulfilling day at the Kendrick Foundation. In the meantime, I hope these help her a bit.

How to Tell the Truth
  • The one who is NOT talking is the one with all the power.
  • Just because there is a pause in conversation, you don't have to fill it. It is actually physically possible to sit silently and make eye contact. Even better, it drives other people nuts and they usually start to babble.
  • Just because someone asks you a question, you don't have to answer it. I worked on a project once with a customer who was a master of this. I would ask him a direct question, and he would smile, look me in the eyes, and begin to talk about a totally different topic. The smile was the secret to this ploy’s success, I realized. He arranged his face to say, “I will be happy to answer your question! Look at my face, I LOVE telling you the truth.”
  • Tell the truth as it relates to YOU and don't surmise or offer opinions about others' actions, thoughts or motivations.
  • Truth comes in many package sizes. It can be delivered in everything from a mini snack-pack to a jumbo Warehouse Club pallet. When you might be getting someone else in trouble by sharing a whole lot of truth, it’s okay to hand over just the minimum, at least as a start. Don’t lead with the jumbo size, ever.
I realize that for most people of even moderate levels of success, this advice seems on the “breathe in, but then remember to breathe out” variety. You’re probably thinking that someone who didn’t even know this much was not very well-prepared for corporate life. But don’t worry. I made up for it in other areas. When it came to an issue I’d never encountered in my family before, salary negotiations, I decided to approach the one person I knew who held a job that didn’t require union dues – my brother. He offered this gem to a young and stupid female just starting out to make a living as a writer: “Just say, ‘Mr. Employer, I know you’re a fair man, so I’ll let you decide what you think I’m worth, and I’ll be glad to work for whatever salary you think best,’” he suggested.

Armed with a worldview like this, I quickly ascended the corporate ladder, gained a huge circle of friends and had to beat the boyfriends away with a stick.

Or something like that.

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