You know those moments when somebody pulls you aside to tell you that you have spinach in your teeth, or to offer you a breath mint? Those are moments when you really should take the advice and not argue.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me an article: Reputations Are Hard to Build and Easy to Lose. And that, my friends, is 100% sound advice.
But I wanted to argue.
Dear Reader, I would like to tell you I was working on a top-secret, highly sensitive project that required me to take a contrarian approach to every common-sense piece of career management wisdom ever uncovered by humans.
But no. In point of fact, the day that article came into my Inbox, I was just feeling angry.
I’d been spending way too much time on social media. And I should know better. Too much time on social media tends to close my Behavior Window; online, where there are nasty inputs hitting every few seconds, from every side, I tend to turn into a defiant 7-year-old. “But Mom, He Started It!” (There’s a reason most people who know me in real life don’t know my Twitter handle.)
Long story short: I really, really, really needed that article, that day.
Anger Management Tools (at the Keyboard or Anywhere)
While the positive, constructive, relationship-building skills of L.E.T. were developed and refined for face-to-face situations, they can be modified and applied to electronic communications when emotions are running high—both with strangers and with people we know. Here are some steps I would suggest to avoid stepping into a giant angry mess–the first step is always the hardest:
- Step. Away. If I feel myself getting angry at the keyboard, that is always 100% the wrong time to hit reply. Always. Nobody has ever lost a job, an account, a political debate, or a friend by stepping away from the computer for a few minutes to take a few breaths, make a cup of tea, walk around the block, or even look at pictures of puppies until the blood pressure goes down and the tunnel vision returns to wide-angle.
- Name that emotion. As we learn from L.E.T., anger is a blanket term that overlays a lot of other emotions—frustration, fear, disgust, terror, insecurity, feeling threatened, etc. Digging deeper helps to clarify what triggered the strong reaction in the first place and can assist with dialing back the urge to lash out disproportionately or inappropriately with an emotional, irrational, reputation-shredding response.
- Consider saying nothing at all. If the hackles on your neck are settling on their own after a breather and you’ve begun to understand your own emotions (including why they were triggered), you may determine the problem owner is you, not the other person. Hey! There’s the Behavior Window in action! (A quote floating around the ‘net goes, roughly, “You don’t have to show up at every argument you’re invited to,” and I’ve been trying to put that philosophy into practice recently. Baby steps.)
- Don’t let GLOP get the best of you. Finally, and perhaps most importantly in online communications (where cyberdisinhibition takes empathy hostage), remember how susceptible we are to GLOP, or the General Labeling of People. What’s GLOP? Essentially, it’s ad hominem, and in social media spaces, it looks like this:
“Spoken like a typical __________!” “You would say that, because you’re a _________.” Nothing good ever came from GLOP. Nothing. (Did you know the United States Senate has a rule against questioning the character or motives of senators and/or states? It was enshrined after a senate floor fistfight, and that’s a strong statement about the negative consequences of GLOP.)
But I Already Messed Up. Now What?
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, prevention doesn’t work. We say things in anger, either with our voices or in writing, preserved forever, in social media, for the whole world to go back to and pick apart and mock forever.
And then it’s time for a serious cleanup on aisle 5.
THIS IS A BONUS OPPORTUNITY. We all screw up from time to time (Yes, really; all of us). We are all flawed humans, not machines running error-free software.
That means we will all earn, at various times, a splendid opportunity: The chance to perfect our apology and amends-making skills. And when it comes to apologies, there are definitely best practices.
A relationship or reputation that’s been compromised by words needs to be repaired. Those efforts begin—always—with an apology. The repairs may need to go well beyond the apology, but that is where they start.
All apologies are not created equal. Non-apology apologies are increasingly worming their way into the public sphere, and it’s no wonder they don’t sit well: “I’m sorry if you were offended.” “I’m sorry that people took things the wrong way.”
A genuine, effective, sincere apology takes full responsibility and expresses regret. That’s it. Full stop. Simple, but not easy. Acknowledge the hurtful words (however they were delivered, whether on a blog, via email, over social media, or face-to-face) and apologize. For example, “I really blew it when I fired off that email, criticizing your presentation. I realize it was hurtful and I am genuinely sorry about that.” Anything less and the apology is incomplete. Anything more—any attempt to explain, justify, or “help the offended party understand”—could compound the problem and lead to a new opportunity for a brand-new apology.
The Bottom Line
It doesn’t matter who started it; your reputation and your words, like The Wayback Machine internet archive, are forever. And as Google can tell you, there’s no such thing as a deleted tweet. It’s your reputation. Use Your Skills. Take deep breaths. Download a lot of photos of puppies.
Be careful out there.