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Cleaning Up My Messes

Forbes, by Andrea Howe, February 21, 2012

I messed up a few weeks ago. I sent a not-so-nice email to a colleague I’ll call Randy. I did it after I got a fervent complaint from a new client about him. Randy was negotiating something on my behalf and, from the client’s perspective, took a firm stand in a way that did not go over well. The client said the one thing that escalates my blood pressure in a matter of seconds: “Randy could stand to learn a lesson or two from you about doing business in a trustworthy way.” For me, this cued the entrance of the high horse and I immediately climbed aboard.Here’s the background that might absolve me (or at least invoke your empathy): while it was the first time I was working with Randy, it wasn’t the first time I’d heard this complaint about him; I was in the middle of a seven-city travel sprint with too many all-day meetings; and I was unaccustomed to being represented by someone else and therefore felt out of control (probably my least favorite feeling in the world).

Whatever my rationalization, how I handled it reminds me of Mickey Mantle’s assessment of himself as a role model: “Don’t be like me.” I was indignant, self-righteous, and completely justified (I thought) as the Trust Superhero: “I must defend and protect my clients to the end! I must teach the world the proper ways of trust!”

I “didn’t have time” to call Randy, so I cooled off for a few hours and crafted an exacting email, which I sent at 9 p.m. I was proud of myself for being wise enough to wait that long. I should have waited longer. The next day I felt like I do when I indulge in a Big Mac craving: I’m blissed-out while I’m gorging on it, then thirty minutes later I feel like crap.

While it didn’t take me terribly long to figure out I had handled the situation poorly, it took me nearly a month to call and apologize. My interactions with Randy in the interim were brief, transactional, and email-based. I kept my distance and continued to blame him (“He should have responded to my complaints immediately!”). When we finally spoke (this time I phoned), I learned he was truly perplexed about what he had done that had caused so much upset. He had been sick that day and for several weeks afterwards. He had opted for silence as a response to my email because he figured that things would look differently with time. He was caring and gracious on the phone. And in our conversation I learned some things I hadn’t known before, like the fact that he’s a big advocate of women and hates it when we don’t get what we deserve. If he was abrasive in negotiating with my client, he felt he was doing it on my behalf. Apparently he too likes to defend and protect his clients—in this case, me—to the end.

Twelve-step programs advocate “making amends;” Landmark Education teaches “getting complete.” Whatever you call it, there’s a lot to be gained from doing it. Here are a few things I re-learn every time I set things right:

  • I sleep better at night, and focus more during the day, when I clean up my messes.

  • Whatever “wrong” someone else commits, the only person I have control over is me. I can choose to be a good role model…or not.

  • Real-time conversations are far better than emails where tricky relationship situations are concerned.

  • Mistakes provide a unique opportunity to build intimacy in a relationship.

  • New connections and opportunities almost always arise from difficult conversations.

  • When I take responsibility, others usually do the same. When I’m open to learning, others usually are too.

  • Although sooner is certainly better, late is far better than never.

What it takes to clean up a mess are qualities that I have more of on some days than others: courage, humility, self-awareness. Sounds an awful lot like what it takes to cultivate enduring relationships that are built on a solid foundation of trust.

Thanks, Randy, for being such a good teacher.

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