Words Best Left Unspoken
Who of us has not had the experience of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth, uttering something embarrassing or tactless? Once the words come out of our mouths, we realize the problem and apologize or squirm (or both). Unfortunately, some people make this a habit or have a premeditated way of making others uncomfortable.
Just the other day when I was attending a morning networking meeting, a photographer I had never met approached me. “Hi. I just wanted you to know that I specialize in photographing women of a certain age.” Since she is not a “woman of a certain age” and I am, I have to believe that she did not realize we don’t want to be distinguished in a crowd by our advanced age, especially first thing in the morning.
Contrast this with another woman at another meeting who introduced herself to the group by saying she works with seniors who need financial services. She looked around and said, “I see no one here is eligible for my services.” I instantly loved this woman.
A client relayed her dismay at being reminded that English is not her first language while at a doctor’s appointment. One of the attendants told her she has a really “thick accent.” She fretted over this all day.
The bottom line is no one wants to be reminded of her “downsides.” The photographer trying to get my business would have been more effective had she approached me pointing out a strength. For example, she could have said, “You have such a warm and friendly face. I’d love to capture that sometime in a photo.”
If the attendant at my client’s appointment was having a difficult time understanding her, he could have taken responsibility for that. “I’m sorry. Sometimes my hearing is a problem. Could you repeat that for me?”
Tact is a communication skill that is focused on understanding another’s point of view and feelings. In Buddhist teachings, this is called mindful speech. A way to monitor one’s speech is to ask yourself these questions before speaking: Is what I’m about to say true? Is it useful? Is it kind? And is it necessary? According to this doctrine, one’s truth (which can often be disputed), does not legitimize the need to express that “truth.”
If I analyze my own mindless, tactless speech, I can most often trace these gaffes back to my self-centered focus. I was more concerned about my own anxiety, my own needs to be entertaining or to fill up time and space. Mindful speech often leaves us speechless. Without speaking, I can train my eyes and ears to be more attuned to others’ feelings.
On the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, we can use a reminder about the keys to success. To quote Fred Rogers, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”