I observe how people act, as well as how they talk. I offer my honest opinion, Gilbert. Formerly, you thought that a sign of respect. –from City of Darkness, City of Light, by Marge Piercy

That passage stopped me in my tracks yesterday as I was slogging through City of Darkness, City of Light. (Don’t get me wrong; I’m enjoying the book, but it’s a fairly heavy read.) I really identified with the first two sentences–I do exactly the same thing, and I think I’m pretty good at it. It was the link to the last sentence that set my mind a-whirl.

The character to whom this statement was addressed, Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette (yes, THAT Lafayette), was trying to trade favors with the speaker in order garner support in an upcoming election. The speaker wouldn’t make a trade and told Lafayette he’d consider his own vote at a later date. Frustrated, Lafayette essentially told him, “You’ve given me nothing!” The speaker, of course, saw it differently.

And here we land on the pivotal point: a straightforward, truthful, no-strings-attached assessment is, indeed, something. It is, in fact, a gift.

Think about it. When someone offers an observation wrapped in platitudes and qualifications, he’s trying to protect the other person or himself from something, whether that’s a negative reaction, an ego blow, or something else. For whatever reason, he isn’t comfortable “telling it like it is,” or he wants something in return.

On the other hand, a person generally has to hold another in fairly high regard (doesn’t mean he has to like her, though!) to tell her what he thinks, politely but unabashedly.His opinion is part of himself, and he’s trusting the other to treat it with respect when he hands it over.

My boss once told me a story about a technology someone wanted to adopt in another company. The guy in charge thought it was a great idea, and the people involved in meeting after meeting kept the project moving forward. Everyone was on board: finance, engineering, marketing, operations. When the factories were finally switched over to the new technology, productivity plummeted. The company tried making tweaks, but nothing helped. Finally someone asked the operations guy what was going on. He quickly identified the issue and explained it to the guy in charge. The disconcerting factor was that the operations guy had known it all along, but he had never spoken up. He let the whole company make an expensive mistake because he hadn’t respected the guy in charge enough to give his honest assessment. He just smiled and said yes.

Maybe you think that respect is the wrong term. I could argue that, but it’s not really important. The main thing to remember is that when someone offers you an honest exchange of ideas, accept it for what it is. Don’t search for the quid pro quo; it’s a gift all by itself.

Yes, indeed, an honest opinion is a sign of respect.

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