noegohereApologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego. —Unknown

I chewed on this quote for a long time when I first read it. It’s good stuff, but as sung by The Fray, “Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same” (from All at Once). So I still struggle to put that into practice, to wait a beat before I speak and let my head lead my mouth rather than vice versa.

The other day I realized that perhaps “apologizing” is too narrow a term. Listening on a conference call, the posturing was so thick, it almost took material form. I could practically see it. This quote popped into my head, and I thought of it in terms of correcting, redressing, proving you know something, and reminding someone else of what [you think] he should know. I’m sure there are dozens more.

Then I thought about the word “relationship.” People on that call clearly weren’t concerned about relationships, but at least they should have been concerned about getting things done. Stepping on people’s proverbial toes (or egos) should always fall behind accomplishing the goal. Think of how much good we could do (or pick your own result: how much money we could make, how many goods we could produce, how much we could improve quality, how many people we could help, how many diseases we could cure) if we could all just get over ourselves.

No matter how I rewrite that quote, it all boils down to this: putting aside my ego.

Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.

Ancient history

Last weekend, I had the chance to speak on behalf of my company at an event honoring our longevity in and contribution to the community. Aside from a mild (but quickly waning) apprehension toward public speaking, I also felt a frisson of delight about being our spokesperson.

I carefully crafted my speech, trying to find just the right mix of appreciation for the past and promise for the future. I felt really good about it and hoped it would go over well. Even knowing I was part of a larger event, I stayed pretty focused on the part that centered on me.

Of course, it wasn’t about me. It took all of thirty seconds after the doors opened to realize that I was just a tiny cog in that wheel. Former employees from all decades of the company’s existence poured through the doors, exchanging grins of delight as they took in all the once-familiar faces. The speeches became secondary–like polite pauses in conversation while a newcomer interjects a loosely related observation–conversational inconveniences affably accommodated for the sake of propriety.

The “real” program took place all around me in the form of reminiscent conversations. As I heard memories awakened and stories retold, I began to see inside my company to its bones. I saw its heart and soul, its hands and feet in the people and their stories. I breathed their excitement as they relived the early years full of inventions and patents and hope. I felt the warm mantle of their sense of common purpose, of family.

Yes, I know a lot about my company. I know the facts and figures and plans and strategies. I’ve even been here long enough to have experienced a few of the old stories myself. Still, I never expected the welling sense of pride those people gave me about the place where I work. It’s my heritage, too, after all.

The lessons I learned that day are these. Know where you come from. Understanding your past is a foundation for your future, whether you build on successes or learn from mistakes. Neither underestimate nor overlook the lessons others have learned. More importantly, companies are built on people, and people build companies. Honor them, learn from them, remember them. They brought you to where you are today; give them credit.

Shut up and listen

I pride myself on catching on quickly. I like to think I get it without a lot of explanatory narrative. Maybe there is some amount of natural intuition involved, but mostly it takes active listening and making mental connections. So, by some mathematical property that should certainly apply broadly to touchy-feely analogies like these,I think that must make me a good listener.

Well, pride goeth before a fall.

Sometimes I get so caught up in making those mental connections and proving my comprehension that I slide right through the listening part. Luckily, there are often verbal cues to set me straight, to remind me to shut up and listen.

I was given one of those cues the other day. While I was rambling on about the point I thought my boss had made, he sat quietly, waiting for me to finish. I didn’t notice that his eyes had glazed over, nor did it occur to me that he wasn’t speaking or nodding. When I finally stopped to take a breath, I heard the cue resonate loud and clear–though my boss said it quietly.

Where I was going with this is…

Oops. Those words embarrassed me more than I can say. I had clearly missed the point. I should have kept listening instead of jumping in to show that I understood. Thankfully his reminder was gracious, and we moved forward without further attention to it. It made me stop and reflect, though. Regardless of what I think I know or how good I think I am at interpreting, it never, ever, ever hurts to shut up and listen. Even communications people need to be reminded every now and then.