In “The Chamber of Secrets,” Harry Potter is introduced to the Floo Network: a network of fireplaces connecting locations within the wizarding world.
Using the Floo Network to travel from one place to another, all that is required is to toss magical floo powder into a fireplace, step into the magical green fire produced by the powder and proclaim the intended destination. Instantly, travelers arrive at whatever locale they specified.
Apprehensive and uncertain on his first attempt, Harry steps into the fireplace and, instead of saying “Diagon Alley,” which would have transported him to meet his friends at the wizarding world’s version of the Mall of America, he says “Diagnollay.” He arrives at Knockturn Alley, the hub for practitioners of the Dark Arts. And so Harry’s adventure begins.
As witnesses to Harry’s first encounter with the Floo Network, we are also reminded of an important truth: that how you say it matters. Harry’s experience shows how a simple slip or twist of the tongue can have disastrous implications, rerouting us to unintended destinations in our relationships, and sometimes in our careers.
In short, as important as what we say is how we say it. Timing, context, tone of voice, facial expressions – all of those things matter and can enhance credibility and trust — or derail it.
Many of my clients began their own kinds of adventures when they regrettably said the wrong thing – either in content or in tone.
In one situation, an employee alleged that her manager was aggressive, threatening and routinely used offensive language.
When I met with the manager, he acknowledged that he often felt frustrated and overwhelmed; he agreed that it probably affected how he spoke with people. He had a single request for me: he wanted “The Book.” “What book?” I asked. “The book that lists out everything I can and cannot say so to stay out of trouble,” he responded.
It’s not that simple. We all have deadlines, challenges, differences of opinions, pressures outside of work – any of which might affect our demeanor.
Alas, we are not a collective of “The Stepford Wives,” and there are no playbooks that guarantee when we are in or out of bounds.
So much of what we do and say must be considered in context, which is why so many people new to our workplaces struggle in their interactions with co-workers. The good news is that though standards of professional communication are not programmed in our DNA, effective communication is a skill that can be modeled and learned.
There are great tools out there: video and voice recordings, for example. Many recommend leaving yourself a message and playing it back. Personally, though few things cause me to break out in hives, the thought of watching or listening to a video or audio recording of myself requires an immediate dose of Benadryl.
One of the best tools I’ve encountered is a mirror that one of my colleagues set on his desk next to the phone. Printed on the mirror were the words: “Can you hear my smile?” As he talked on the phone, he would then be reminded to smile.
By smiling (not grimacing, mind you), people tend to calm themselves and align their tone to their expression. Smiling becomes a way of moderating the intensity of what you are saying, and matching the pace of the conversation with the other person and creating space to reflect on the appropriateness of the response.
A second great tool: a heartfelt apology when we have caused harm to another, even if completely unintended. Simple.
Ultimately, the issue is really one of personal accountability for the places we end up and the impacts we create from our efforts to communicate. We need to avoid blaming people for being overly sensitive, for failing to understand the pressures we are under.
Our commitment to interact with civility and professionalism may lead us to discover that the most powerful magic we create is derived from something as simple as a smile and a willingness to apologize when we have erred.