As an executive coach it’s profoundly interesting to me how the way we express ourselves either provides venues for improvement or constricts us, by blinding us to existing options. Most of us, when faced with aspects outside our control tend to express ourselves by shifting responsibility to these very aspects. Let me give you a familiar example to illustrate this point.
You’re sitting in a meeting and someone arrives late. The person (let’s call him Jack) enters the room and promptly excuses himself: “Sorry for being late. Traffic was terrible.” (or “My previous meeting ran over and I couldn’t leave.”)
Whose fault is it that Jack arrived late? The traffic, of course.
Whose fault is it NOT? Not Jack’s, of course.
Given such conditions, when will Jack stop being late? When there’s no traffic, of course.
What control does Jack have over the traffic? None whatsoever.
So, whenever we use an excuse like this, we position ourselves as innocent victims of circumstances. What usually blindsides us is that our excuses are usually true. There really was heavy traffic, or the previous meeting really ran over. We usually use such arguments because they exonerate us from the consequences of the occurrence. But there’s a steep price that we pay whenever we use such arguments.
The price we pay for using arguments that exonerate us from guilt is our ability to intervene, to change the outcome of the situation. As Fred Kofman says, “the price we pay for innocence is impotence”. We remain impotent in the face of these external circumstances. In fact, there will always be things that we do not control (like the heavy traffic), but it is within our grasp to decide how we shall respond to these circumstances. We can choose our behavior.
How will you choose to respond to such circumstances? Who will you choose to be? Will you be a victim or will you be an active participant in your personal and professional life?
When we arrive late at a meeting, it’s not really because of the traffic (although there might have been traffic). It’s because we made a choice to sleep in those extra minutes, or because we chose to take route A instead of route B, or because we chose that it was worth it to spend those extra minutes with our kids in the morning. That’s ok! But it is a choice. Owning up to those choices is what makes us alive, responsible and valuable.
So, what might be a better way of expressing ourselves in such situations?
Well, in the above example of arriving late to a meeting, here are some possibilities.
“Sorry for being late! I didn’t account for the heavy traffic.” or “My previous meeting was running late and I decided to spend a few extra minutes in there to make sure we closed the issue.”
What’s so different with these expressions? There is a subject in those sentences. We’re owning the responsibility, and we’re also allowing ourselves to be a part of the solution. Here’s how we become part of the solution.
“My previous meeting was running late and I decided to spend a few extra minutes in there to make sure we closed the issue. So If you can stay a few minutes longer, I’ll be happy to address all your questions. If not, I’ll be available to schedule a follow-up meeting at your convenience”. This doesn’t guarantee that our customer or our coworker will agree to it, but we’ll be responsible for our choices, our actions and for whatever comes out of them – both good and bad.
- “Productivity Killers: The Victim Virus” by Fred Kofman