You’ve Got the Power!
RECENTLY, WHILE ON JURY DUTY, I was sitting in the waiting room reading my New York Times when a very large—okay, fat—woman tried to squeeze by me. She was carrying a big, heavy bag and, as she stepped over me, she hit me in the head with it.
I was about to say something, but she sat down and glared at me as though that was exactly what she was hoping for. Discretion being the better part of federal courthouse valor, I decided to say nothing and went back to reading my paper.
A few minutes later she got up to go hand in her jury notice. As she headed back to her seat, I was ready for her; I had scooted my seat back about a foot. But as she passed by, she hit me in the head with her big, heavy bag again.
There was one empty seat between us where I’d been keeping my unread sections of the paper. But this time, as she glared at me, she also plopped her bag down right on top of my newspapers.
Now I felt I had to say something, but the words that came out of my mouth were so far out of left field it was as though they were coming out of some other person.
What I said was, “You’re welcome to read my paper if you’d like.”
For a moment a confused look crossed her face, as if she didn’t know what to say next. Once she collected herself, however, and after a couple of false starts, she smiled and said, “Thank you. That’s very nice.” Then she picked up The Arts section and began to read.
What power! Just like that I had taken a potentially inflammatory situation and poured water on it, turning it to my advantage in the process. But what was even more significant, I believe, is what I didn’t say, which could have been anything from “Excuse me, your bag is on my newspapers” to “Get your goddamn bag off my papers, bitch,” which, given the venue, might have ended up getting us both thrown in jail.
Why “You’re welcome to read my paper” came out of my mouth instead, I really don’t know, although several years ago—in an effort to curb my it’s-all-about-me approach to life—I came up with a number of rules for myself (such as saying hello and nodding to fellow passengers when they got on “my” elevator and slowed me down). In the same vein, I have two major rules for riding in a cab: Don’t tell the cabdriver how to go and don’t tell the cabdriver where to go (not as in a destination but as in “to hell”). Instead, upon exiting, I force myself to say something nice like, “Thanks for the ride” or “Have a good day.”
The thing about these two rules is they have absolutely nothing to do with the cabdriver and everything to do with me. Opting for patience over my temper just makes me … feel better. For a moment, and only very slightly, it brightens my day and gives me a sense of control, no matter how false or fleeting that control actually is.
Any way you slice it, words do matter, and the words you choose matter a lot. And words not only matter, words hurt. (The single greatest disinformation campaign of childhood is the “sticks and stones” rhyme.) They are like barbed arrows, which, once beneath the skin, not only begin to fester but are diffcult to take out and often leave a lasting scar.
Once the wrong words come out of your mouth, not only can’t you put them back in, they almost invariably provoke an even more hostile response. A war of words is like violating a nuclear nonproliferation pact: “If you bomb me, I’m going to bomb you back twice as hard.”
Sometimes saying the right thing is just a matter of being nice. About ten years ago two women self-published a book called Random Acts of Kindness, which went on to become a bestseller. Around the same time, a novel by Katherine Ryan Hyde titled Pay It Forward also became a bestseller and was subsequently made into a movie. Together they formed what became known as the kindness movement, with its essential karmic message being: What goes around, comes around, but even if it doesn’t—kindness is its own reward.
Since we all sort of know this anyway, then why is being nice, not saying the wrong thing, and saying the right thing in its place so hard? Because we are human. And because we are human we don’t always think before we act. And because we are human we have feelings. And because we have feelings, our feelings can get hurt. And when our feelings get hurt (the whole fight-or-flight thing), we lash out.
The problem is compounded by the fact that lashing out can be very intoxicating: “Boy, I put him in his place,” “That’ll teach ’em,” “Now she knows who’s boss.” But that kind of high is usually short-lived, followed by an emotional low or just plain feeling bad.
So how can we help ourselves say the right thing before the wrong thing comes out of our mouths? Well, one thing we can do is try to develop a more conscious awareness of how our words and actions affect others.
Good luck with that! Unfortunately most of us, including me, don’t walk around with this kind of self-awareness even when we try. Worse, when this kind of awareness does occur to us, it’s usually after the fact.
I believe, however, that by following a few simple guidelines and some specific examples, both of which this book offers, we can train ourselves to say the right thing most of the time.
We should also be well motivated. What this book is really about is getting ourselves heard by not arousing the listener’s hostility while using different words to say basically the same thing. It is essentially about not being our own worst enemy, about getting out of our own way.
Another thing you might want to think about is memorizing some of the phrases in this book. That’s not as daunting or as irritating as it may sound. There are only a finite number of phrases that get you the results you want. Simply flip through this book and see if anything strikes a chord. If so, then maybe this book could be helpful.
Back to my jury duty story. Did I really have any power over that woman? I think the answer is yes. By saying the right thing to control the situation, I controlled her, and by controlling her I controlled the outcome. In fact, we had a nice nodding relationship over the remainder of the two days. When they finally dismissed us at the end of the second day, our paths crossed once again and I had the opportunity to tell her what I was really thinking:
“Have a good day.”
Six Degrees of Conversation
IF THE WHOLE IDEA IS to get yourself heard, then it’s not just what you say, it’s also how you say it. Your tone, your inflection, your body language—all adding up to the way you come across—can make all the difference in the world.
My most frequent conversational transgression is using a tone of voice that sounds like a combination of annoyance and contempt. I call this tone of voice “the implied idiot,” meaning I don’t have to actually say a parenthetical “you idiot” at the end of a statement for the listener to get my drift, as in, “Why would they possibly agree to that (you idiot).” It can be a conversation ender, but more often it just pumps up the volume.
In addition to the strategies and examples proposed in the following chapters, here are six suggestions for keeping your conversational “attitude” at a minimum and dramatically improving your chances of getting yourself heard.
1 • Think ahead(before the words jump out of your mouth).
2 • Listen more (thereby talking less).
3 • Pay attention (actually hear what someone has to say).
4 • Listen empathetically (“I’m hearing you”).
5 • Slow down (if you speak too fast).
6 • Lower your voice (if you really want to be heard, whisper).
A Short Letter of Agreement
There are times when you would like the protection of a contract but the matter is too small (or not worth the expense to take to a lawyer). You must consider the old bromide “He who represents himself has a fool for a client,” and since I’m not a lawyer myself I will not attest to the ironclad validity of what is written below. But if the point is to get something on paper, then I suggest the following format.
Dear ___________, Date
The purpose of this letter is to confirm the understanding that has been reached between [his name] and myself, [your name], with respect to ___________. Our understanding is set forth below.
1. [Name] agrees...
2. [Name] agrees...
[as many numbered paragraphs as you need]
Please sign and date both copies of this letter, which will then constitute a binding agreement between us. Please return one counter-signed copy to me.
Use “I” (Put It on You)
IT MAY SEEM ODD TO SUGGEST starting a sentence with the vertical pronoun, otherwise known as “I,” without having it sound egotistical. Indeed, it can be when attached to certain verbs, such as “I am” or “I did.”
But when attached to certain other verbs, like “I feel” or “I think” (as opposed to “you are” or “you do”), it has the reverse effect by putting the burden of responsibility on you. Not only does it eliminate the aggressive accusatory tone, but no one can take offense with how you personally feel or how you personally think.
What follows are a few examples—both the wrong way and the right way—of taking it off them and putting it on you.
“You are …”
“You do …”
“You don’t …”
“I feel that …”
“I think that …”
“I know that …”
“I believe that ...