“And there ain’t nothing like regret to remind you you’re alive.”
— Sheryl Crow, “The Difficult Kind”

Things I Might Have Said

We all do it. Those after-the-conversation fantasies about what we could have said or should have said during the exchange.

For some reason, one of those times has come up for me lately, one that involved a presentation I did years ago for a CEO peer learning team, a small group of top executives who were getting together regularly with a facilitator to share their experiences and help one another.

Most often it’s not worth the time to indulge the fantasies, but I stuck with this one to see where it might go.

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It involved a presentation I did about Driving Fear Out of the Workplace, the book I co-wrote regarding speaking up in the organizations and the negative effects of “undiscussable” issues. My presentation emphasized the inadvertent behaviors displayed by executives that could contribute to closed, “silent” workplaces where good ideas get squashed and important issues never quite make it to the arenas where something constructive can be done about them.

There was considerable positive discussion among my audience of ten experienced executives. Close to finishing time, however, John, one of the CEO’s present, challenged the whole concept of my book. His tone was one of frustration and patronizing critique.

“I read books like this from time to time and they are all well and good, but they are not at all useful for me. This is another example of a book based on anecdotes and stories. There is no rigorous, professional business model to back up any of your conclusions nor anything that shows me in a demonstrable way that I or my company would benefit from your advice. As a consequence, I cannot possibly see how this discussion is of value to me.”

“What do you mean, “rigorous, professional business model?” I asked, off guard, puzzled, and suddenly a bit rattled.

“There is nothing measurable in your ‘study,'” he said, referring to the fact that my co-author and I had interviewed 260 people in a wide variety of organizations about their experiences with not speaking up. “I have no idea whether or not there would be value to my business from the actions you suggest. Where are the industry benchmarks? Where are the proven results?”

Other executives in the room suddenly seemed to agree with his forceful conclusions. The moderator said nothing. Other participants (who later told me they liked the presentation and agreed with my conclusions) also said nothing. It was up to me.

I cannot recall exactly what I said in reply but I know I was thrown back on recounting the results and value of our survey work. But I did not address John satisfactorily — that was for sure. Moments later, moments filled with tension for everyone, the meeting hastily concluded and everyone left. I felt as if I’d been spat on by an adversary as he walked out the door. As in all such situations, it wasn’t the words he used, it was the demeaning tone.

So years later, I am still remembering this, the embarrassment and vulnerability I experienced. From a logical standpoint I can chock it up to being his problem. But apparently, internally, I’m not done with learning from this event.

In my fantasies, I’d like to think I could have said something like:

“Okay, John, sure there’s no formal Profit and Loss Statement regarding the value of psychological safety within organizations, so you are correct about that, but may I point out that the way you are speaking now, your challenge about measurability and the way you making it, is an example of the very behaviors that shut down open communications and create undiscussable issues?”

And then in my mind I go a step further, touching more explicitly into my emotions.

“Okay, John, let me make you a wager. I’ll come to your company and interview a sample of your executives, managers and employees, asking about undiscussable issues. Just for ducks I’ll include questions about your own leadership of the company — and we will just see if there are any issues, should you be strong enough and open enough to address them sincerely, that might save you some costs or make you more money. If I can do that, then you will pay my fee (which will be a lot) or I give you the results and analysis for free. You up for that?”

And going even darker…

“How come you even joined this group, John? Was it to learn? Really? Are these statements of yours an example of how you go about learning? By challenging and dismissing rather than learning and exploring? Is this the reason someone suggested you attend this group, so you would finally get some feedback about how destructive your interpersonal style really is?”

Oh, I know, this is all anger and fantasy. Opting for such responses may have only served to play the game his way, and my credibility as a consultant might very well have died on that sword even more quickly than the non-response I in fact offered.

And all of this is not the most important part of the fantasy, anyway.

What’s important is how the situation hooked me. Destabilized me and made me and others tense. How even when I knew something, I had a hard time expressing it and acting on it in a cool, Clint Eastwood kind of way. And that in turn raises a new question: Am I expecting myself actually to be that way? Is that really what I want of myself?” Another “pale rider” or “high plains drifter?”

I offer you my apology, John, for not trying harder to understand you in favor of just defending myself. I wish I’d offered in the moment to feel whatever you were feeling, including perhaps how criticized you may have felt by what I had said in my presentation.

I wish I’d trusted you enough to explain that we might well be from separate worlds, that I respected you, and that I saw our job in that room at that moment as creating a kind of bridge. Would it be too much to send you, at this late date and putting aside my useless regrets, a fragment of a later peace?

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8 Comments

  • Dan, this is brilliant! We all learn from your ability to reflect and lead forward! Thanks! Stay blessed!

  • Ellen, thank YOU so much for your words.

  • Dan, After our very enjoyable conversation today, I was delighted to see this post. We even touched on a couple of the topics you mention here.
    Having said that, however, I want to congratulate you on your wonderful ability to put things like this into perspective and your willingness to share some uncomfortable realities that plague everyone. Most are reluctant to talk about them. This reflection serves each of us by its final act of understanding and insight. With that, you and we can move to more learning …and hope that the next “opportunity” for it is not as painful.

  • Lyn, it’s great you noticed that “final act” and the release to move on.

    As Liz Kislik DM’d me about this story, there’s a virus like thing that happens. One person’s emotions “infect” another’s — and the “cold” is thus spread around to everyone nearby.

    Nice to be on the other side of this one.

    Thanks for writing and for the great conversation by phone this afternoon. Many best wishes!

  • Dan,

    Your openness and transparency are a given in everything you write.

    This was an exceptional piece of writing for me. It illustrated two things for me. One, the progression of how we can defend ourselves (from the tactful to the aggressive). And boy can I identify with these! Two, the most important – how to stand in someone else’s shoes and connect with their needs first. When under “attack,” I often forget about that! Thank you for helping us reach for our better selves!

  • Much appreciation to you for your kind words, Debbie. I’m so glad you found value in my story. And I’m totally with you that the challenge of connecting to others’ needs, of noticing their threat level, is often very hard when we’re in our own threatened space. Something to work out with ourselves and work on with others!

    Thank you again, Debbie, and best wishes.

  • Dan, I swear you and I had the same experience at opposite ends of the Pacific Ocean. Same type of audience, same subject matter, same contemptuous response. My experience also prompted me to write a blog article (see if you can guess which one). In my scenario, I was truly shocked that a CEO of a well-known company would have such a disdainful attitude towards her staff.

    Thank you so much for bringing your authenticity to this post. I resonate with your statement that it says more about this CEO than it does about you. The irony of his response is not lost on me and I feel for the people who work “under” him. With some distance, I can, as I’m sure you can as well, remember this experience with greater equanimity, but at the time, it can be disheartening, infuriating and shocking. With a little time between this experience of being blind-sided and the present moment, I think it serves as a reminder that our work must go on. ….only strengthens my resolve to keep going, keep role-reversing and keep waiting patiently for people to get it.
    Best,
    John

  • You are indeed a kindred spirit, John. It is a challenge to get into someone else’s point of view when the outcome of that perspective seems to be a personal attack. It is one of the reasons why over time I’ve come to feel that unconscious defenses — personal, cultural and corporate — are a major impediment to more open, humane and productive workplaces. Becoming aware of them is a individual and group journey. And even awareness really isn’t enough. It’s finding another way based on insight. The only problem with that supposition is that it means I must model gettng past my own defensive “events.” I learn more about that every day.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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