Sometimes, it can be hard not to take someone’s comments personally. Let’s face it. It’s human nature to hear something, process that information quickly, and then make a snap judgment about what it really means. Unfortunately, not everything we hear about ourselves and our work is positive though. That means these less-than-objective in-the-moment responses can trigger some pretty raw emotions at times.
I’ve been in countless coaching situations where my clients’ direct supervisors use certain words that trigger downright hostile responses from my clients. That likely wasn’t their intentions. I’m confident they weren’t trying to be hurtful and probably just didn’t think through the other person’s listening for how he or she might react to what they were about to share.
This happened recently where a CEO tried to clarify her expectations about her Vice President direct report’s relatively new position. Instead of speaking about the functional role and her specific responsibilities though, this CEO said to the Vice President, “You aren’t _________.” I’ll let you fill in the blank for yourself based on what you may have said/heard yourself in the past. In this case, the VP simply took it as a personal attack of her individual competence and technical abilities rather than a constructive comment about her shifting functional responsibilities. And you can imagine how the meeting went from there!
Processing information and making informed decisions isn’t a bad thing. To act or not to act. To go left instead of going right. These types of decisions are critically needed and can produce great results. The objective here isn’t to stop listening or acting based upon what we see and hear. The point is not to jump to conclusions and pass judgments prematurely simply because we may be triggered emotionally.
In this case, the CEO may also be responsible for her poor phrasing. Regardless of the other person’s comments or actions, if you feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck or all the blood flowing to your head like it’s going to explode, or maybe you just hear your voice getting louder and louder and louder as you continue speaking, you can actually sense it in yourself that you may be taking it personally. When you reach this boiling point, it’s time to step back and seek clarity before proceeding any further.
When I’m coaching business leaders, I regularly invite them to get grounded in a place of curiosity such that they are able to clarify what the other person really means. “That’s interesting. Can you say more about that?” and “Hmmm, I’m not sure I see it that way. Can you explain what you mean?” would be two very mature ways of addressing what you might otherwise perceive as a personal attack. Fighting back – especially when it’s your boss! – isn’t going to get you anywhere positive – unless you really do want to get fired!
Too many people in my experience, myself included at times, start with that judgment first and then shut down emotionally. That all but kills a conversation, so I invite you to take a more productive approach by seeking clarity first and not taking things so personally.
Feel free to visit the Executive Coaching page of our website for more information on how we work with senior leaders to help them regain this presence and produce better results. What someone else says is up to him or her. How you react to someone else’s comments though is totally up to you, so keep your cool and don’t take it so personally!