This post was written by Hannah Morris, Director of Assessment & Advancement at The Latimer Group.
“I’m sorry.” And “Thank you.”
These are expressions that we learned to use early in life. They were often shared at our parents’ insistence, and our reluctance, at least where siblings were involved.
But I wonder if most of us have ever fully understood the importance of these words in our personal and professional lives. These words are not just niceties. They wield incredible power in our dynamics with others and can serve as gatekeepers to our relationships.
Taking responsibility and offering gratitude can make us feel vulnerable. We take a risk in expressing these actions explicitly and sometimes fear that it makes us seem less confident, and thereby less credible.
But could they actually be the sign of real confidence? The kind of confidence that embraces our own humanity and humility and accepts the fact that not doing everything yourself and not doing everything right is expected and okay? This type of humble confidence allows us to trust ourselves and trust others, with balance.
Now, can these expressions also be used in excess? Of course. I used to coach a junior varsity, i.e. low level, softball team with many beginners to the sport, i.e. a lot of dropped balls. In the first week of the season, we had to put a moratorium on the word “sorry” in order to get anything done. Just like self-deprecating humor, taken to an extreme, these expressions will get in your way.
For most of us, though, embracing these expressions can be liberating and can help us navigate conflict more successfully. If we have made a mistake – even inadvertently – that has caused grief for a colleague, acknowledging our responsibility is critical to demonstrating empathy and repairing trust. Whether or not they know it, they are waiting for “sorry” – a genuine one – to let go of any hurt or animosity they feel. That exchange then allows both parties to move on to a solution more quickly and productively.
There are other expressions that we should become more comfortable with as well: “You’re right, I’m wrong.” And “I don’t know.” Our spouses and partners would sure like to hear us use those more readily. But they can also play an important role at the conference table, or on the Zoom call.
Productive vulnerability is a critical part of the intellectual humility that allows us to say, “I don’t know the answer to your question, but I will find it out and get back to you.” Showing an audience of one or many that we understand the limits of our own knowledge and will not hide it with lies or falsities actually builds trust. And, having the forward-looking promise to accompany our admission, makes everyone feel more confident in and satisfied with the exchange.
In an era where research and experience are telling us to value emotional intelligence and empathy in our leadership and enhance trust-building in our cultures, we should all examine our own relationships with these simple expressions and consider how to leverage their power for good.
P.S. All of these expressions are more powerful “with context”, as my eight-year-old reminded my eleven-year-old the other day. (Thank you to the teachers who have taught them this vocabulary!)
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