Change How You Confront

I was apoplectic when a friend remarked that the president of a certain country did “nothing” during the president’s entire term.

To me that is an unfair sweeping statement.

Sweeping statements are never beneficial. They are imprecise and often send mistaken messages. They seed uncertainty and distrust and are usually intended to make an imposing point about how right the person making the statement might be. They tend to be narcissistic and self-serving and are often sanctimonious. In other words, people with weak foundations for hard facts make sweeping statements because they want to make a point that makes them look correct and therefore look moral and righteous in the stance they are taking.

On August 21st, there was an article in The Sunday Times, entitled Blindedsided by Dirty Old Man, written by Sharon Loh. In it she recalled a couple of incidents experienced by her daughters.

She first recounted how a man in his 50s asked her teenage daughter for her name when jogging. Loh accused the man of “hitting” on her daughter.

She also wrote: My daughters were lounging by the condominium pool when they were invited by some boys to a movie. “Wow,” I told anyone who would listen, “Singaporean men are buayas.” (“Buaya” is the Malay word for “crocodile” but is also a colloquial term for “lecher.”)

Now, that’s a sweeping statement for sure!

Loh, who calls the US her home now, then went on to make another sweeping statement:

“In our home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, men do not make a habit of staring openly or passing remarks on women in the street.”

In one fell swoop, Loh insulted all the men in Singapore – including her own father and husband – just because from her experience, men in North Carolina “do not make a habit of staring openly or passing remarks on women in the street.”

(As an aside, despite the presence of perverts and sickos, not all men who talk to teenage girls are sexual deviants, and if my teenage daughters don’t get movie invites from other boys, I would be very worried.)

Another example of a sweeping statement would be “You ALWAYS stay late at work, making those of us who leave on time look bad.”

Any leader worth his salt would have long learned that to make an effective point in communication, we must use the three-part assertion message, a technique to communicate a message when others are doing something on which you want to comment.

This is how it works:

  1. Describe behavior
  2. Describe how you feel
  3. Show the broader impact of their behavior

So instead of saying “You ALWAYS stay late at work, making those of us who leave on time look bad” say “When you stay on after hours, I find it annoying, because there’s a chance that people might get the impression that the rest of us are not working as hard.”

Many are often not sensitive enough to realize the effect of their actions on others. Disclosing how you feel can be quite a surprise – and eye-opening – for many. It is also impossible for them to deny this: only you can describe how you feel. Taking the risk to describe how you feel helps the other person to accept the impact of what they have done, beyond having affected your emotions.

Have the courage to “confront” the person one on one, not deploy a whole host of others to carry your message. If you feel slighted because of what someone said, go and meet the person face to face, describe his behavior, describe how you feel and show him the broader impact of his behavior. Do this yourself instead of making use of a whole bunch of other people, emissaries, to do this for you. A non-intimidating chat over coffee would have resolve the issue there and then.

Above all, care enough to get your facts right; if you have solid, documentable and verified evidence that the particular president has done “nothing” in his entire term, present those facts and not just bits and pieces of information taken out of context. There is a phenomenon called “confirmation bias” where you turn everything you see into a nail just because all you have is a hammer.

As a leader, you are responsible for communicating clearly and succinctly at all times and to do it well. And I can’t stress this enough: It is also always, always your own responsibility to communicate on your own behalf, not make use of mouthpieces who will do the job for you.

If you lack the courage to speak the truth, who can trust you to have the courage to lead?