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.
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 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.