Leadership Q&A: How do I know if I’m wasting my breath?

Businesswomen Sitting TogetherMy blood was boiling. I was trying with everything in me to stay calm and failing miserably. The volunteer leader I was meeting with was furious and making sure I knew about it. As her voice got louder and more intense, I matched her volume and tone. When she slammed my office door on her way out, I wanted to throw something after her to break into a million pieces in dramatic fashion, just like in the movies. (But I didn’t want to bust up my precious jar of Monday chocolate* on account of her.)

I was fired up.

I shared this story recently in response to a leader friend’s question about a difficult team member:

How do I know if I’m wasting my breath?

The volunteer in this story was a smart, successful woman. And we had worked well together over the years. And I couldn’t begin to understand why she would be reacting so violently to the matter at hand. I kept thinking that surely if I just explained the situation again, maybe a little louder, she would hear me and understand.

I was wasting my breath. (Along with a whole lot of emotional energy and precious time.) And so was she.

In his book, Necessary Endings, Dr. Henry Cloud describes strategies for dealing with people who are wise and foolish.** (He contributes these titles and the teachings that go along with them to the author of Proverbs, King Solomon.) A wise person accepts feedback and makes adjustments. By contrast, a foolish person rejects feedback or explains it away. With a wise person, talking helps. Talking about a problem with a fool, or at least someone who is acting foolish, does not help at all.

In the situation shared above, we were both playing the fool. Ordinarily wise and mature women, we were both acting foolishly. We had allowed identity issues and fear and pride and exhaustion to override every ounce of wisdom and self control. (Sin after sin after sin – did you notice?) We both didn’t want to accept responsibility for the pieces we owned and we wanted everyone else to change; accept us, of course.

When offering difficult feedback or discussing a serious problem, consider how the other person is responding. Are they open to hearing hard truths expressed with grace and love? Are they really listening with the hope of understanding and making adjustments? Or are they just dismissing the issue? What kind of person are you dealing with: wise or foolish? As Dr. Cloud says, “the strategy with a foolish person is to stop talking and move to two important interventions: limits and consequences.”

Leadership communication is not always easy. Discerning your audience is necessary for intentional communication to occur. And for you to save your breath.

With whom do you need to stop wasting your breath? How can you change the conversation today?

*”Monday chocolate”: working for so many years with women, I made it a rule that we would always have chocolate as part of our meetings and ministry functions. But there was a special stash of the good stuff, little truffles from heaven, that we referred to as the “Monday chocolate”. It was reserved for particularly stressful situations (like long Mondays filled with meetings) or times of celebration (like finishing long Mondays filled with meetings).

**Leadership author and speaker Michael Hyatt has an excellent podcast on this topic: Episode #066 The Difference Between the Wise and the Foolish (and why it matters to you).

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