What would happen if people didn’t have to “be careful what they say” around you?

My favorite scene in Meet The Fockers is when Ben Stiller gets stuck baby-sitting Little Jack.

Searching for anything to keep his infant nephew entertained, Focker resorts to singing a broken version of Mockingbird:

“And if that mockingbird don’t sing, Greg is gonna buy you a diamond ring … and if that diamond ring gets sold, Greg is gonna feel like a … big asshole.”

At which point Little Jack replies, “Ass … hooooole!”

“No!” Greg exclaims. “Oh, no, you don’t wanna say that word, cause that’s a bad word!”

“Ass … hooooole!”

But it was too late. Little Jack instantly added that word to his vocabulary. And if you know anything about the impressionability of children, you can guess what happened next.

Little Jack just kept saying it. Over and over. Like one of those annoying green parrots at the zoo.

“Ass … hooooole!”

And, to make matters worse, the rest of Greg’s family – which included Father-in-Law Robert DeNiro (yikes!) – was coming home soon. And thanks to Focker, that expletive seemed to be the ONLY word Little Jack knew.

“Ass … hooooole!”

So, why did this happen?

Easy. That’s what kids do. That’s how they learn. They imitate and repeat. You don’t have to be a parent to know that.

As so, one of the basic principles of Babysitting 101 is, “Be careful what you say around them.”

Hmm. Now there’s an interesting concept. Be careful what you say around them.

I wonder what would happen if we applied that same principle to the adult world?
I wonder what would happen if we stopped talking babies and start talking business?

See, there IS a direct correlation between this principle and YOUR reputation.

THINK ABOUT IT: Are you the kind of person who, when other people describe you, they have to add the warning, “You have to be careful what you say around him”?

I hope not. Because if this is the reputation you’ve earned – intentionally or incidentally – you might have a problem.

If this is the thought in people minds when they’re talking about, talking to, approaching or being approached by you – you might have a problem.

Because the REAL implication of the warning, “You have to be careful what you say around him”? suggests one (or a combination) of the following perceptions:

o You’re easily offended.
o You’re closed-minded & judgmental.
o You violate interpersonal trust by gossiping.
o You don’t give people permission to be fully truthful.
o You allow your emotions to get in the way of listening.
o You remember things and twist people’s words against them.

And as a result, three dangers occur:

DANGER #1: People will be on guard around you. Tense. Self-conscious. Afraid to offend you. Walking on eggshells. Hesitant to set off your emotions.

And the mental energy they expend on those fear-based thoughts (1) robs them of their ability to be true, (2) prevents them from offering full information and (3) scares them away from sharing what’s most important.

DANGER #2: Then, interactions will seem longer because people will feel uncomfortable. And interactions will end prematurely because people will just want to get the hell out of there.

Ultimately, this reputation that precedes you will contaminate the space. People won’t feel like it’s is a safe container in which they can share.

DANGER #3: This unapproachable behavior will also prevent the possibility of making communication a relaxing experience.

And the worst part is, your reputation as someone whom people have to “be careful what they say around” will stop future communication in its tracks.

“Ass … hooooole!”

To sidestep those dangers, let’s explore of five strategies for laying a foundation of approachability. When executed consistently, they will foster open, honest and complete communication with people you serve. What’s more, they’ll help dispel the myth that people always have to “be careful what they say around you.”

1. Establish safety early. If confidentiality is an issue, make sure you address that right away. Try Phrases That Payses, like, “This is completely off the record,” “This is between you, me and the stapler,” or “I want you to know that nobody else is going to know about this but us.”

This lets people know they can share honestly, openly and fully with you. No holding back. No fear of being ridiculed. Just a safe space. The earlier you establish this, the more comfortable people will become around you. How safe do people feel around you? How quickly do you create a question-friendly environment? And are you someone others can be dumb in front of?

2. Give people permission. To open up. To request help. To ask question. To offer feedback. To feel vulnerable. To share victories and mistakes. To volunteer information and concerns. To discuss workplaces problems before they snowball. To comfortable and confidently be their true self.

The secret is, whatever your people need permission to do; just make sure YOU execute that action first. My suggestion: Practice radical honesty. Reveal your vulnerability. Become a living brochure of your own awesomeness. The more you practice those, the more you grant people permission to reciprocate. What do your people need permission to do? What do your people need permission to BE? And how could you stick yourself out there FIRST to pave the way for future openness?

3. Share your thinking. If people never know what’s on your mind, your unpredictability will heighten their apprehension and lower your approachability. And the silent dialogue will become, “For all I know, could be a ticking time bomb this morning! Better not say anything deep or lengthy.”

As a result of this unapproachable pattern, your communication topics will always remain superficial with the people around you. Nobody will get to the heart of any important issues because they’re holding back, unsure about how you might react. How are you initiating movements toward people? What is causing you to be easily misunderstood? And what are you doing that prevents people from learning from you?

4. Become someone others could tell anything. Here’s a cool exercise: Get together with a close friend, colleague or superior. Have both people write down the name of ONE person in their lives in they feel they could tell anything.

Next, ask the following questions to yourselves: Why? What are the character attributes of those people? And what, specifically, have they done in the past to earn that position in our minds?

Then, write those attributes down on a sheet of paper. Rate yourself on a scale from 1-10 on how well you embody those attributes. Then, exchange papers and have your partner rate you on those same attributes without looking at your original score.

When you’re done, see how close the numbers get. You may be pleasantly surprised or unpleasantly shocked. Are you someone others could tell anything? Who confides in you? Whom do you confide in? And how would your business change if you were perceived as someone whom others could tell anything?

5. Grow thicker skin. If you’re the kind of person who takes offense to everything, here’s what will happen. People will start tiptoeing around you, trying their hardest not to get caught in your vortex of hypersensitivity. Then, they may purposely leave out important points just to avoid pushing your hot buttons. And all that’s going to do is leave you in the dark.

My suggestion: Practice accepting opposition to your viewpoints or decisions without considering it a personal attack. Divorce your ego. Detach. And learn to treat all ideas – even the ones that embarrass or contradict you – with deep democracy.

As Dr. Robert Sutton explains in The No Asshole Rule, “Adopt a frame that turns your attention to ways in which you are no better or worse than other people.”

Or, if that doesn’t help you grow thicker skin, you can always sing karaoke or participate in an open mic night. At what point during a conversation do you usually start tuning people out? How can you apply what you’re hearing, even if you’ve heard it before?

REMEMBER: Be not tolerant OF or satisfied WITH interpersonal distance.

I challenge you to make a concerted effort to understand how other people experience you.

I challenge you to become someone others could tell anything.

And I challenge you to become known as someone around whom other people don’t have to “be careful what they say.”

Otherwise, your new nickname might become: “Ass … hooooole!”

What would happen to your organization if people didn’t have to watch their words around you?

For the list called, “37 Personal Leadership Questions Guaranteed to Shake Your Soul,” send an email to me, and I’ll send you the list for free!

* * * *
Scott Ginsberg
That Guy with the Nametag
Author, Speaker, Coach, Entrepreneur

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Author. Speaker. Strategist. Songwriter. Filmmaker. Inventor. Gameshow Host. World Record Holder. I also wear a nametag 24-7. Even to bed.
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