How To Go From Under The Bus To The Driver’s Seat
We’ve all had situations in which we feel we’ve been wronged and want to respond appropriately, but struggled to do so while maintaining the relationship. Just about every married man in history has apologized to his wife for something he didn’t do, just to avoid a showdown. Almost every woman at work has swallowed her pride in front of colleagues at some point in her career just to get through the day. What if there was a way to maintain that sense of self-respect and still keep the peace?
Earlier this month, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley showed us how. Larry Kudlow, the Director of the National Economic Council, advised the press that Haley may have been “confused” and spoken out of turn about the President’s plan to impose additional sanctions on Russia. The Ambassador responded quickly and succinctly with, “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.” Haley, the smart and savvy former Governor of South Carolina, is a political veteran, and has surely had to deal with more than her share of public challenges to her positions. She’s also been in the public spotlight enough to know not to make rookie mistakes, like speaking before she knows her facts. So, compared to most of us, she’s had more practice at this type of response. Nevertheless, her response to Kudlow’s comment demonstrated resilience and grit, and was delivered so quickly and tersely that Kudlow then had to apologize to her.
There are four things we can learn from her simple response.
1. You can fight back with class. By starting with acknowledging respect – in a way, acknowledging perspective – Haley took the edge off what came next.
I once took a walking tour of Charleston, South Carolina led by a lovely, middle-aged, Southern belle, born and raised in the city. As we walked the cobblestone streets, she shared one gossipy, scandalous tidbit after another about this family and that, but somehow always seemed poised and respectable. After one slanderous-sounding story she said, “By the way, as a Southern woman, you can say the meanest thing you want about anyone as long as you start or end with, ‘Well bless their heart….’” “Well bless his heart, he drank like a fish.” Or, “She was like her own USO tour, she was so popular with the sailors, God bless her heart.”
I don’t advocate gossip. I’m suggesting if your comment is delivered with some etiquette, with a few words that take the edge off, it comes across as somehow balanced and nuanced, regardless of how direct it is.
At work or home, when you need to correct someone’s statement you can give your comment some needed depth by adding,
“With all due respect….”
“I understand your position….”
“For perspective, I suggest….”
“From my vantage point….”
“I appreciate your perspective. My point of view on that is different.”
The list is endless.
2. Don’t start with an apology. If you feel you were in the right, don’t undermine the validity of your perspective by setting up the discussion with an apology that isn’t sincere. You’ll feel undermined in terms of your own value, and the other person, if he or she threw you under the bus to begin with, will then take advantage of the apology to emphasize that you were in the wrong.
Of course, if you were in the wrong, you should apologize. A heartfelt, “I’m sorry about that.” Or even a quick, “My bad,” for a minor infraction goes a long way to maintain a relationship and allows you to move forward.
3. Know your own position. If you know you were right to begin with, you’re more likely to stay strong in your self-defense. Haley was able to respond with a terse, “I don’t get confused,” because she knew she had done her homework, knew she wasn’t speaking out of turn, and knew her intellect and clout were on par with those criticizing her.
In the new film Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill during the few weeks after he is named Prime Minister. Churchill must decide whether to negotiate a humiliating peace with Hitler, or mobilize the British people to fight in spite of overwhelming odds. Throughout the movie you see his tremendous insecurity regarding his country’s ability to withstand a German invasion. But, you always feel his sense of self-confidence about his position that appeasement won’t work, and fighting is the only option. That sense of self-confidence in his opinion allowed him to rally the country to his position. Before you go into battle at work, you need to know what you stand for.
4. Comment on what you know, not what you assume. Haley’s response didn’t comment on Kudlow or the White House position. She commented on what she knows – herself, and she did so with diplomacy. She didn’t say, “With all due respect, you’re wrong.” She didn’t attack. In fact, she reiterated her earlier comments without using any of the same words. Instead of saying, “The White House position is…,” she said, “I don’t get confused,” which not only defended her integrity, but said, “I know what the President and I discussed.” In the case of operating on a very public stage, where tact is important, she knew she shouldn’t reconfirm, “The President said he was going to impose additional sanctions.” That would create a confrontation. Instead, she directed her comment to herself, which allowed the discussion to veer ever so slightly away from the sanctions, where there was a no-win situation.
In short, if you need to defend your position at work, you can stand your ground while still being diplomatic. You’ll be well served to stay polite, hold firm without apology, know your position, and stick to the facts you can confirm. Now you’re ready for your ambassadorship.
Originally published on Forbes.com.