I came from a family with lots of people who didn’t hesitate to say what they really thought. My girlfriend, on the other hand, came from a big family in which teasing meant nothing but teasing. So to me, her good-natured teasing felt a lot like criticism. Neither of us was being unkind or unfair–we just knew two different languages.
We finally realized what was going on when, after being hurt by comments she’d make on a fairly regular basis, I would finally tell her how I felt and learn that she had meant something completely different from what I had interpreted–something fun and light-hearted.
It’s Going to Happen
On some level, though, no matter what you’re used to, what someone means completely harmlessly (even positively) may sometime trigger feelings of hurt, offense, or discouragement.
One of the toughest challenges I have had to overcome is being easily hurt by people’s words, even when hurt is not intended. That’s tougher to do when you don’t realize the intended meaning wasn’t actually offensive. So it doesn’t hurt to clarify. The more you clarify in a relationship, the less misunderstanding there will be.
But the fact remains, sometimes what someone meant positively will feel negative to you.
I used to think there was no good solution, and I just had to pick the lesser of two evils: I had to voice my offense and make someone uncomfortable, when I knew it may not have been intended. Or else I had to bottle it up and pretend like the words weren’t discouraging me. But if you’re willing to be weird like me and talk to yourself, there’s a much happier solution!
How it Happens
Say you’re a new member of a sales team. You’re new to this industry, learning the ropes as you go.
“I just pitched our new product to Mr. Johnson for his business,” you say. “He said he wants to sign up, so I sent him an email explaining the next steps he should take.”
“Ha! Let’s see if he actually follows through!”
You chuckle along with your co-worker, because even though you really have no idea why he’s chuckling, you don’t want to make things more awkward.
Feeling a little unsure, you reply, “Yeah, who knows,” and you head back to your desk.
What did he mean? Why did he laugh?
Insecurity and embarrassment play their annoying little game in the back of your mind.
Did I sell it wrong? Should I not have offered it to Mr. Johnson?
There are any number of possible reasons your co-worker might have laughed and said what he did. Maybe he’s noticed you’re not getting much follow-through on your selling yet. Maybe he thinks you shouldn’t have sent the email. Maybe he knows something you don’t about Mr. Johnson. Maybe he even tried selling that product to Mr. Johnson already, but Mr. Johnson is bad at following through. Who knows, maybe your co-worker was simply distracted by something on his computer and tried to respond without thinking.
Our anxious and paranoid minds like to assume the worst, or at least fear the worst. So even if you know in your head he might not have been belittling you, you’ll still feel the possibility enough to be discouraged.
Distinguishing the Feeling from the Intended Message
So the first step is to untangle your feelings and anxieties from the actual message. All you know is that for some reason your co-worker thought the situation amusing and expects Mr. Johnson may not follow through. Does any of that actually imply anything negative about you?
Next, it helps to ask yourself how likely it really is that your co-worker would laugh at the attempts of a new salesperson (keep in mind your co-worker has been there before and knows how hard it is to start selling a product for the first time). If you were in his place, is there any way you would laugh at your new team member? Besides, if you were going to laugh about him, you probably wouldn’t do it to his face. And it probably wouldn’t be as personal and malicious as all that.
Finally, it helps to realize that even if your co-worker did mean it negatively toward you, how your co-worker feels about the situation has very little bearing on your person or success. You are putting yourself out there in uncharted selling territory, which by default will come with many rejections. So if anything, you are to be congratulated.
You can use these thoughts and others to argue yourself out of offense and assumptions.
How to Beat the Comment Mentally
So here’s how to keep from getting discouraged when someone (friend, co-worker, spouse, whoever) says something that accidentally leaves you discouraged.
Let the conversation play out in your head.
You don’t have to express insecurity or assume you did something wrong. If he really has valuable feedback for you, let him give it (it might help to invite feedback in general at a different time, when you’re not feeling or expressing discouragement).
You don’t have to take offense and ask for an explanation. That wouldn’t do much good.
Instead, you can play out the rest of the conversation in your head. Something like this.
If he realized how that sounded, I’m sure he’d say, “Oh, I’m sorry! That didn’t sound like I meant it!”
“Oh that’s okay,” I’d assure him, “I didn’t figure you’d just laugh at me. So what do you know about the situation I don’t know yet?”
“Oh, I’ve been bugging Mr. Johnson about that product already. He keeps promising to follow through, but never actually does it.”
Ah, I see. What a relief. “Should I not try to pitch things to him anymore?”
“No, no, you did exactly what you should have! Don’t stop. You never know when a ‘no’ will become a ‘yes.’ It’s actually great that you’re selling even when you’re not sure.”
How much better do you feel now? Of course, that may not have been the reason behind your co-worker’s response. Maybe he did think, “This new guy has no idea who he’s selling to!”
Well what then? Does that have to discourage you? Try playing out that conversation, too.
I don’t really appreciate that. I have to say something. “What’s so funny?”
“Oh, you just obviously don’t know Mr. Johnson. So your sales pitch probably won’t go anywhere.”
Goodness! I don’t think he realizes how that comes across. “Gotcha. Well I’m sure I’ll get more familiar with our clients, but in the meantime I don’t mind taking chances, because I expect lots of my pitches to fall through. It’s just the name of the game. As a matter of fact, I’d really appreciate anything you can tell me about the clients I’m working with.”
He looks embarrassed now. He must realize how unfair he was. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry, I didn’t mean to discourage you from selling. I just know Mr. Johnson already. But yeah, it’s good you’re so eager to sell. I wish I had a little more guts, too. I’d love to give you tips about our different clients. Hey, how about when you’re selling to a client you don’t know much about, before you give your presentation, check with me and I’ll let you know if I have any info for you.”
That makes sense. Maybe I should have checked first. But like he said, at least I have the guts to be a salesman. “Sweet, I’ll definitely do that! Thanks for your help!”
“Yeah, keep up the good work!”
Why it Works
You see, no matter what the comment originally meant, it is highly unlikely that someone you are close to (co-worker, spouse, friend) actually meant to hurt or discourage you.
You could play out the conversation in your head with almost any meaning assigned to your co-worker’s original comment, and end up realizing that an honest discussion would almost certainly lead to agreement and encouragement.
Of course, sometimes it is more helpful to actually have the conversation. Sometimes you may need to really tell someone how they made you feel and that you’re worried they meant it in a hurtful way. Especially if you don’t yet know the person well enough to trust that, at the end of the day, they want to be kind and helpful.
But there are some instances where, instead of “making a big deal out of it,” a simple mental exercise can put your mind at rest. If your wife says something that sounds like it might be a little mean, there’s no need to take offense. You know her better than that–play out any version of the conversation you like: She’ll end up supporting you. (It might be helpful, though, if it’s a frequent occurrence, to let her know how it sounds and makes you feel when she makes certain comments.)
Don’t you think a lot of offense and arguments would be avoided if you just communicated to yourself what you know about the situation and about the person who accidentally discouraged you?
Don’t you think if instead of brooding over a discouraging comment, you made yourself think logically about the whole thing, you would beat a lot more discouragements and find yourself far more confident and empowered?
At the end of the day, though, even if someone did mean it as negatively as your paranoia tells you–they were probably wrong. You probably shouldn’t live for a critical person’s approval. Just keep up the good work!