Last week, I was coaching a client, let’s call him Rob, who was preparing for a course he would be leading. The topic was time management, and as Rob began, he said, “I’m bad at time management! Some of the areas I struggle with are…” and he listed two or three specific challenges he faced.
After he ran through his lesson, I asked the small coaching group I was working with what Rob had done well. We all agreed that he had done a great job—he was engaging, facilitated a robust discussion, and had insightful things to say about the topic.
“There’s one thing I want to point out,” I went on. “I loved that you are sharing your vulnerability on this topic by letting the class know that there are areas of time management that are hard for you. That worked really well in getting the others to open up and share their experiences. But I would be careful not to describe yourself as being ‘bad at it.’”
I went on to explain that certain words are really loaded, and they create immediate connections in our brains between the person saying the word and the person themselves. “Bad” is one of these words. The impact of the statement “I’m bad at that,” is amplified in this situation because the students have no prior relationship with Rob. They don’t know whether they should read that as self-deprecating or humble, so it just sounds like a statement of fact. So then why is this person who is “bad at time management” teaching them about it?
Another example of this was when I was coaching the CEO of a financial services firm. In the introduction of a big pitch to a potential new client, he used the word “doom” to describe his career during the Enron debacle. While I’m sure that was true, he didn’t want to create an association in the client’s mind between himself and doom!
Rob heard what I was saying with surprise. “I didn’t even realize I had said that! I guess instead I could say something like, ‘Most people have areas that they can work on regarding time management, and that’s true of me, too!’” What a great adjustment! The students still hear the invitation to share, and they have the assurance that the course is being taught by someone who isn’t here to judge, but to support.
Everything doesn’t need to be a euphemism, and I’m wary of jargon that seems to be hiding what’s really going on. But do be aware of how you talk about yourself, your team, and your projects. What may feel like gentle joking or self-deprecation could have a bigger, and more negative, effect than you want.