Why do we hold back on saying the things that matter?
In the movie Jerry Maguire, Jerry, played by Tom Cruise, has an epiphany in the middle of the night that ends up changing his life. In that moment he comes to the realization that his agency’s focus on getting more clients is completely wrong. Instead, he asserts, the focus needs to be put on the relationship with our current clients by providing more time, attention, and caring.
Jerry’s passion for change served him well by the end of the movie, although, initially, his company pushes him out for his radical ideas. But isn’t it always a risk to say what we really feel? After all, honesty can be a game changer when it comes to relationships.
One of my coaching clients was pressured to leave his position and finally decided to take another job instead of facing a slow and painful death. Despite being happy to be free of a miserable situation, he had mixed feelings about whether or not he was leaving on his own terms. Was he? I guess you could spin it either way.
What was interesting, however, was what he said in our last coaching session together. He told me how surprised he was to receive so many heartfelt comments from his staff, his peers, and his superiors during his final week. They all made a point to say goodbye.
“What do you mean?” I said.
He shook his head. “If people really felt that way about me, then why did they wait until I was leaving to tell me? I had the impression everyone wanted me out.”
I had no answer.
I come from a very loving family, although our love is more implied than verbally stated. In fact, the first time I actually told my father I loved him was just hours before he passed away in his hospital bed. It seemed so easy to say it at that moment—and yet so difficult to say it before then.
What is it about endings that makes it easier to be authentic, honest, and loving with the people who are leaving us? And why can’t we be that authentic, honest, and loving all along with the people in our lives?
Many companies ask departing employees to give an “exit interview” with Human Resources. The hope is that employees will be brutally honest about their experience at the company and provide some useful feedback for the future. Sounds reasonable, right? Yet few people find that process safe. One coaching client told me that he decided to forgo his exit interview because he didn’t want to burn any bridges in the field. What’s ironic is that the reason he left was because of the dysfunctional way business was being handled. Still, he chose to remain silent.
Isn’t open and honest communication a fundamental expectation in any relationship, whether work or personal? Why are there so many exceptions to the rule?
When I’ve designed and facilitated team-building sessions for intact groups, my goal is typically to create enough trust so that open and honest communication could follow. I’ve discovered that it can take the better part of a day before a group feels comfortable enough to provide useful feedback to one another or to discuss sensitive issues. And these are groups that work with each other every day.
Stealing from the Jerry Maguire movie, we would end our Leading From Within workshop (a 3-day program on authentic leadership) with an activity called, The Things We Think But Do Not Say. That exercise provided the opportunity for participants to acknowledge each other for something significant they said or did during the workshop. Because this activity comes near the end of the program, the comments are always heartfelt and often very emotional.
Why do endings give us the courage to say the things we think but do not say? Is it because it’s our last chance? Is it because it takes time to become honest, transparent, and vulnerable with others? I’m not sure, but I wish there were more Jerry Maguires out there. I wish we didn’t have to wait until someone was leaving before telling them how much they mean to us. I wish at work we could say what we mean without it feeling awkward or uncomfortable. I wish honesty and open communication were more the norm instead of the exception to the rule.
Perhaps instead of wishing so much, I should focus on doing it more myself.
*This story is from Greg “Geese” Giesen’s book, It’s All About Me: Stories and Insights from the Geese.