That Time We Said “Still”

Almost a decade ago, I worked in a very rigid, structured (slightly uptight) office. I say that with a lot of love (and PTSD). That job taught me more than I could have ever learned in university.

Structured organizations are interesting – you either love them or you hate them. I was too young to know one way or the other. I just knew that my job was stressful. There were multiple levels of approval for everything I wanted to do, regardless of how big or small. My team and I were once told that our ad, laid out on a black background, needed to be 25% more black. That was a head scratcher, and not the last time I would hear something like it.

Structure. Routine. People want what they want.

One Friday at this place, my friend M had to follow up with a customer. We had been working on a time sensitive project – maybe a product launch or a promotion – I don’t remember what exactly but we needed answers. After having left a voice mail and following up with an email, she found herself following up again a few days later. Something to the effect of:

“Hi buyer,

Pleasantries go here. Blah blah blah. I still haven’t heard back regarding the (project) we had discussed. Can you please let me know how you’d like to proceed?”

The email had barely left her outbox, when we got called into the manager’s office. We’re thinking, ok we need to tell him what plan B might be. A million thoughts went through your head when a manager asked to see you in their office at this place, one of which was, very often…am I losing my job today?

As we stood in the doorway of his office, email still on his desktop, he turned over and said “why would you say STILL in this email?”. Well, because we are, in fact, still waiting to hear back! And so began a 15 minute lecture about why “still” should have never been used.

M & I joked about it for years after. But fast forward a decade later, I get his point. It could have been made more clearly, or communicated differently. It could have been used as a teachable moment versus a moment of discipline. But I get it.

Here’s a little Seinfeld to help:

Did you say “Jerry I didn’t think you’d show” or “Jerry I didn’t think YOU’D show”

You see?

Same as “Hey there I’m still waiting (normal tone)” or, “I’m STILL waiting (frustrated tone)”. We already have a hard enough time dissecting verbal communication. Now eliminate tone from it completely, add in the receiving party’s emotions and state of mind that day, and you can see why someone might feel like their back is up against a wall.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this more times than I’m comfortable admitting. Sometimes people come across harsh, sometimes their intended harsh message isn’t exactly received. It’s like receiving a text message you’re not quite sure how to respond to. “Hey do you want to read this and tell me what you think?” How many of us have done that with messages that come through, trying to decipher a secret code.

Here’s the point.

You have to pick your words carefully. It sounds silly, but that’s the world we live in now. Less face to face, more finger to keyboard. I’ve said this to almost every team I’ve ever lead. Pick your words. If you’re heated, STEP AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER. Try to receive the message from the other person’s perspective and see if it feels like a punch in the gut.

I once sat through litigation, where the opposing side pulled out one of my emails from a couple of years prior and questioned me over my use of “grrrr”. I am not kidding. They had a separate argument prepared over the word “subjective”. Words are no longer JUST words.

Communication is an absolute art. Most of us can do better. You have to consciously work at it. Now, before I send an email, I tend to read it at least twice. If I’m frustrated or trying to get a point across, I might get a friend to give me some honest feedback. And, because I’ve lived through it, before pressing send, a little voice in my head asks if I think what I’m saying in an email would cause another “grrr” discussion with a lawyer.

Words are precious. Take a pause before you use them. I mean it. Even face to face, they can be twisted and your intentions can be misinterpreted. And, icing on this complicated cake, you cannot take your emails back. They’re there. In the abyss. Even if you delete it, delete the deleted, and restart your computer, they are out there. Someone is printing it, showing it to their boss, complaining to YOUR boss.

OR

They read it, they acknowledge your message, they appreciate how it was communicated, you guys get along and you live to see another inbox.

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