Monday, June 8, 2009

What You Meant

Humans are human, even at work. Emotions will get involved. Sometimes that's good - pride in a job well done, seeking of praise and approval, etc. But there are about a million ways to insult a human, intentionally or unintentionally. This is why we watch not only what we say but how we say it.

For the most part, this is straightforward. Other times, you can say something with the best of intent, but what the other person is likely to hear is totally different. For example:

"I know you're too busy to review this presentation"
  • What you meant: I'm trying to save you some time.
  • What they heard: You can't handle your current work, much less something else. Oh, and I don't really value your work or opinion anyway.
  • What you should have said: "It would be great if you could review this presentation, but I understand if you can't, or if someone else should. Just let me know."
"I couldn't ask you to work this weekend"
  • What you meant: I'm trying to respect your time.
  • What they heard: It's not like you're going to step up, anyway. OR You're looking run down from how much you've been working lately, and I don't think you can handle it any more. (NOTE: In certain situations, where the person has, say, their wedding, this does not apply - what you mean is what they'll hear)
  • What you should have said: "The team needs to accomplish X this weekend, and Bob and Sue have been stepping up lately. Do we have any other volunteers to come in and help out?" (This is known as the attempt-to-guilt-trip-the-rest-of-the-team approach.)
"Way X is the only logical way."
  • What you meant: Way X makes more sense, so it's what we'll do.
  • What they heard: What kind of illogical moron would come up with way Y?
  • What you should have said: "Way X gives us A, B, and C, with the downside of D, which we will mitigate by E. Way Y has the downsides of way X, but we don't get C and we can't really mitigate D. Way X is the way we'll go." (Translation: Explain why, and attack the idea on the merits, not by simply calling it stupid)
There are other phrases you have to watch, of course. These are just some of the nefarious ones. The point is that although we'd all like to think we're egoless engineers, and although in some environments knocking people down is an acceptable thing, most of the time, we need to try to not insult other people. And you know the things that secretly hurt you even though you kind of know they didn't mean to? Everyone has those, that secret little cringe when they feel just a bit insulted, even if they know it wasn't meant as an insult.

So mind your phrases, make sure you say what you actually mean, and that you're not taking shortcuts that will only hurt someone's feelings.

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