Deirdre's popular blog on all things leadership and communication is the perfect example of her personal brand of "mild audacity". Because she gets to say what other won't, her messages get to the core of the real issues behind the challenges we face, the frustrations we feel, and the solutions to making it all better.

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The Single Word that Saves Your Reputation

A few weeks ago I met up with a colleague in a hotel lobby. We were attending a conference there and met to discuss a project before the day’s festivities began.

Things were going fine at first…until they got heated.

I’m still not quite sure what happened, but all of a sudden his voice rose a bit, his tone turned angry and he accused me of ignoring his point of view.

I was taken aback. I felt unfairly accused. My temperature started to rise.

I wanted to respond immediately, to let him know what I really thought, to match his aggression with my own. It could’ve gone bad…could’ve turned into some kind of weird feud.

But it didn’t.

Right there, in the heat of the moment, I checked myself.

I knew I needed to cool down and address his tone later, after I’d figured out the best way to do so.  Otherwise, I might say something I’d regret, perhaps permanently damage our relationship – and our project.

How did I know this? Because it’d happened before. And it was never worth it.

Plus, getting nasty isn’t how I work. It certainly isn’t what I want to be known for.

And so I continued in my same even tone, kept things professional.

Sure, I expressed my disagreement, but I stayed steady.  I didn’t let my language go personal, nor my tone go sour. And I ended it before it could go too much further. A few hours later, we talked it out calmly.

It could have turned out much differently. But a single word saved me.

Wait.

The word popped in my head the second things got heated. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Now…here’s the truth.

I hate the word wait. I hate it so much I wish it didn’t exist.

Just how much do I hate the word?

Let me put it to you this way. There are a bunch of new pedestrian crosswalk signs in my neighborhood. They come with a certain sound effect.

This: (push the play arrow if you dare)

Okay, you must be with me on this one. I mean really…how annoying is that?!

I hate it. In fact, when the speaker yells the word “wait” at me it makes me want to cross the street in defiance alone. Which, truth be told, I’ve been known to do.

It’s just not in my nature to wait.

  • I not only walk across the street against the red, I also do it when cars are coming…sometimes when trains are coming.
  • I respond to emails in a flurry and bust through my inbox
  • I weave through traffic at unreasonable speeds.

I eat with unbridled aggression…push my way through crowds…get myself off the elevator first.

Why? Because I hate to wait.

But…I also know that when I go full speed ahead, when I fail to wait, that’s when I get myself into trouble. Because, in that moment, I’m not acting. I’m reacting

It’s happened in all kinds of ways…

  • I’ve answered tough questions without thinking them through and then realized I was neither articulate nor particularly effective
  • I’ve sent off a report to cross it off my list and then realized it had all kinds of spelling errors in it
  • I’ve shot out emails to keep communication open, then realized I failed to include everyone in the group, causing some to feel excluded

It messed with my reputation. Which wasn’t acceptable.

So now, I wait.  It’s not easy.  I still have to talk myself through it. But I do it.

Now…let me be clear.

I don’t wait long.

It doesn’t take long to get over something that gets your blood boiling, to find an outside perspective, to take a breath.

It takes an hour maybe…perhaps a few. Not more than a day. Sometimes mere minutes.

  • When I get an email that strikes me as hostile or nasty, I want to respond immediately. But I wait. Usually an hour…after I’ve gotten perspective and thought it through.
  • When I complete a long report that I just can’t stand to look at anymore, I am tempted to send it out right away. But I wait. Usually a half day…after I’ve gotten away from it, then come back for one more review.
  • When I fill up on a juicy burger I want to go back for seconds. But I wait. Usually 15 minutes…after I’ve begun to digest and my stomach tells me that might not be such a great idea.

Whenever I’m in a situation where I’m feeling emotional, rushed, or stressed…where I can feel myself reacting instead of acting, I wait.

I don’t wait long…just long enough.

And that’s the key.

As important as it is to wait, it’s equally as important to know that the word is not an excuse to avoid a hard conversation altogether. It does not give license to procrastinate on a project you loathe, nor skip out on the unpleasant tasks of life.

It simply gives you a brief cooling off period to take a breather, get some perspective, and return…shortly…to deal with it. Better than you would have before.

This week, when you’re tempted to match a nasty tone, slam out a project, rush through an important yet unpleasant task…

…wait.

Wait just long enough to get some perspective…to act instead of react.

Then take a breath, come back, and kick some butt.

One final thing…

Want some proof the word “wait” can save your reputation? Remember that nasty interaction with my colleague?

A few hours later I was lunching with someone I’d met during a workshop that day.

She told me she happened to have been sitting next to us that morning. I hadn’t even noticed her at the time.

“Wow,” she said, “he was sure laying into you. But, I have to say, you just stayed calm and steady the whole time!”

Turns out the word “wait” doesn’t just show you what you’re made of.

It shows others, too.

Now, go do good…and do it well.

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20 Responses to The Single Word that Saves Your Reputation

  1. David M. Dye (@davidmdye) May 1, 2012 at 8:18 am #

    Dierdre – a powerful (powerful!) word…and yes, particularly difficult to do in our culture, when others are pushing, and when our own nature pushes us too.

    You remind me of when our daughter was young and would declare “I hung’y now!” None of us particularly like waiting.

    But, waiting gives us perspective and we just can’t make the best decisions without the best perspective.

    Thank you!

    David

  2. Deirdre Maloney May 1, 2012 at 8:34 am #

    Thanks for your great comment, David! Is it sad that I’ve also been known to say the words “I hung’y now”…and that it was sometime last week?! Clearly waiting is something I still need to practice daily…

  3. Katie May 1, 2012 at 9:47 am #

    So true Dierdre…you are a great student of human behavior. I was just told this week that I do this when talking with people. I wait for them to respond instead of filling in the silence and I didn’t even know I did that. Thanks!

    • Deirdre Maloney May 1, 2012 at 10:06 am #

      Wow Katie – you’ve mastered something I still work on regularly! Thanks for your comment!

  4. Annie Russo May 1, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    You’re right: it’s hard to be consistently patient and steady. But I really want to cultivate these traits. So, after much trial-and-error, I’ve found that (for me) being patient comes from withdrawing energy from my store of willpower. Unfortunately, our daily supply of willpower is finite. What’s more, we have to ration our willpower because we face more than one temptation. I’m reading and enjoying “WILLPOWER” by Baumeister and Tierney. The authors have a few tricks up their sleeve that help to extend this scarce resource – kind of like Hamburger Helper, back in the day…

    • Deirdre Maloney May 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

      What a great way of looking at it. It’s so true that willpower is so much the name of the game on this. Sounds like an interesting book, too…thanks for sharing the resource!

  5. Sara Napoli May 1, 2012 at 11:25 am #

    Another brilliant, well written post with tons of Deirdre style. Love it!

    • Deirdre Maloney May 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

      Thanks so much Sara – that means a lot coming from a writer like you! Really appreciate it…

  6. iamfree2ride May 1, 2012 at 11:28 am #

    Deirdre,
    After a lifetime of suffering the consequences of reacting instead of waiting long enough to consider a more thoughtful response to situations, I definitely agree with your perspective.

    Thank you for the reminder.

    Gary

    • Deirdre Maloney May 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

      My pleasure…though something tells me this will be a work in progress for the REST of my lifetime…hopefully I can just keep the consequences manageable!

  7. Miguel de la Vega (@mig_delavega) May 1, 2012 at 11:45 am #

    Hello Deirdre. You are right, sometimes we miss to have a more fortunate or even accurate reaction just by waiting. It doesn´t take long, all thar is required is take a moment to think and specially try to see the other´s point of view. That provides new perspective while the temper cools down. Then our words will be not just calmed but right on target. Nice post, thanks!

    • Deirdre Maloney May 1, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Miguel. I often refer to that initial temper spike as “stub the toe rage”. When I stub my toe, in those first few seconds it feels like the worst pain in the world. But, in the end, it dissolves just as quickly. I just need to wait out those few seconds and resist yelling at the unsuspecting guy next to me (usually my husband)

  8. Sally Lawrence May 1, 2012 at 1:36 pm #

    Deirdre,
    I truly enjoy your style of writing! I have just started reading your blog and find it refreshing, practical and very insightful.
    Best,
    Sally

    • Deirdre Maloney May 1, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

      Wow Sally…thank you! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your kind words. I find that the more I just say it like it is (nicely of course), the more people appreciate reading it!

  9. Patricia Costa May 2, 2012 at 4:02 am #

    Thank you once again Deirdre. I love your honesty. I also have had to learn to wait because I used to trust everyone and found it sometimes came back to kick me. I learned from experience who I can share my gut with and those I can’t, oh well, that’s the way it is.

    • Deirdre Maloney May 2, 2012 at 8:26 am #

      Thanks so much for your thoughts! It turns out waiting is what we need to do in all kinds of ways…appreciate the comment!

  10. Louise Williams May 2, 2012 at 9:43 am #

    As the old adage, “Patience is a virtue,” the word WAIT, is worth its weight in gold. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Thomas May 14, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    you know what i hate – LONG EXPLANATIONS THAT WASTE MY LIFE TIME – i hated having to read all that – you made me WAIT (read) through all that — you could have said the same thing in about 3 sentences ;-) … what happened to SHORT AND SIMPLE anymore?

    • Deirdre Maloney May 14, 2012 at 11:48 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Thomas. I think it’s clear that different types of writing will appeal to different people, and I of course respect your opinion.

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