Beating Unintended Discouragement: Talk It Out in Your Head

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!

7 Questions to Ask in an Interview

“Great vision without great people is irrelevant.” – Jim Collins

In all my time as a manager, every employee I hired reaffirmed the same principle: You can teach skills and knowledge, but you can’t teach character.

Interviewing often consists primarily of questions about qualifications, experience, knowledge, professional skills, and the like. But I have not often seen a manager ask an interview question that requires any deep level of thinking and human engagement.

After a while I learned to stop asking the usual questions, because those are the questions people are expecting. Anyone can list 3 strengths they have. They are selling themselves. Typical questions will tell you very little about a person. Everyone knows how to answer “What are you passionate about?” or “How important is your work to you?”

If you really want to see what a person is made of, you have to ask unusual, thought-provoking questions. Questions they haven’t found on Google and prepared for. You have to ask questions that require them to tap deeper into their minds and show you what they’re truly made of.

Here are my 7 favorite questions to ask in an interview (try not to put them in a predictable order):

     1. Tell me about the biggest challenge in life you have had to overcome.

How competently they answer this question can tell you a lot about how self-aware they are, how much attention they pay to their own personal development. Hearing what they considered a challenge, how they went about beating it, and how they are better for it will give you insight into their character.

     2. What drives you personally? Why are you really here?

It seems like it should be the first question on every boss’s mind, but it’s amazing how infrequently it’s asked. A year down the road, after the honeymoon stage is over, it’s important to know what is driving the team member during the tough times. Are they internally or externally motivated? Do they love and believe in what they are doing? Are they personally invested?

     3. If I asked all of your former co-workers and managers, what would they tell me is the biggest thing you need to work on?

It’s a variation on the typical “list your weaknesses,” but this one goes a little deeper. It catches your interviewees off guard. Plus, you’ll get to see how good they are at stepping back and examining themselves from the view of others, and it may get you a more accurate, thoughtful answer. It’s interesting to hear how honest and self-aware people are when they answer this question.

     4. What do you really want to know about a company and environment you might join?

Generalizing the question (instead of asking “what do you want to know about us?“) puts people at ease. It’s easier for them to say “I need to know a team gets along” than “Does your team get along?” So it will give you the opportunity to address their actual concerns, and it’s also helpful to hear how much thought they put into their teams.

     5. What do you know about our company?

How much people have done their homework and learned about your team will tell you a lot about them. Do they really want to work with your specific team? Do they engage and invest in their causes? Do they plan ahead for their success?

     6. What have you been learning lately?

It’s absolutely essential to know that your potential team members are eager learners. You only want to work with people who value continuous self-improvement. I have rarely gotten a confident answer to this question, but the few people who gave the good answers turned out to be excellent additions to the team and very open to feedback.

     7. Are you sure this is the right fit for you? Are you sure you still want to be here?

Between the beginning and the end of the meeting, your interviewees’ minds may have changed drastically. They’ve learned a lot about the team, revealed a lot about themselves, and gotten to interact with their potential new boss. But they might feel committed–it’s tough to back out. So it’s important to be very honest and open with them. Let them know you care just as much about whether this will be good for them as you care about whether they will be good for you. If they’re not going to be truly excited and enthusiastic, it’s not a smart hire.

(Notice the questions are of a general nature. Where it comes to very specific qualifications and focuses of their job, the questions will likely be a lot more obvious and straight-forward.)

Those 7 questions helped me learn a lot about people before it was too late. They helped me find great team members and avoid wasting time and money on poor fits.

The bottom line, though, is this: If you ask typical interview questions you will hear rehearsed answers. You need to really get to know the person and whether they will be a good fit for you. You need to engage them at a very deep level. You need to know what makes them tick.

It might be helpful to try this: Don’t just “interview” them, talk with them.

Coolest Reason to Do Public Speaking

A while ago a member of my Toastmasters club was asked to give an impromptu on why he wanted to do public speaking. His answer was one of the coolest I’ve ever heard.

His first language is Korean, and delivering a smooth speech in unbroken English is still quite a challenge for him. So he explained: Public speaking was one of his greatest fears. He didn’t like it, didn’t feel comfortable, didn’t feel safe.

And that’s why he does it.

He does it because it’s a fear and a challenge. And why not practice beating your fears and challenges?

What a Closed Mind Looks Like

One day long ago, a man walked along a dusty old road. Soon a lion approached and met him. They struck up a conversation and began walking together.

“Tell me,” said the man, “Of lion and man, who do you consider to possess the greater strength and cunning?”

The lion walked silently, considering the question. There is great power and cunning to speak of for both, he thought. But hard to tell which is greater.

Unable to wait, and considerably more interested in his own opinion anyway, the man answered his own question. “I think it is reasonable to say man is greater,” he said. “You lions possess not the cunning and strategy that make us great. We will always be conquerors, and you will always fear and serve us.”

The lion purred in obvious annoyance. “That is quite a statement,” he replied.

“Follow me,” said the man, “I will prove it to you!”

The man led the lion into the beautiful public gardens and up to a great statue of stone. The god Zeus was depicted ripping apart a lion’s jaws, slaying the stone beast. The man pointed smugly at the statue, waiting for his companion to concede.

The lion stopped in his tracks and stared at the statue in some confusion. Then a grin began to spread across his face. He chuckled and turned to the man. “You are blind, silly man! Look at the inscription! It was a man, like you, who carved this statue,” he said. “Had a lion fashioned this statue, you can be sure that it would be Zeus who was slain. You have proved nothing.”


In this old fable, Aesop taught an important lesson: We can easily represent things as we wish them to be. Our minds are shaped by the statues around us. Each statue has its own maker whose mind was also shaped by statues.

Now that does not prove there is no “truth,” no reality. But it warns that we must take care how blindly we commit ourselves to the statues that have shaped us. Why, after all, do we so desperately need to believe our statues are accurate beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Like the man, we are often by nature too confident in our own presuppositions. Too sure of our opinions, too convinced by our own logic.

So it’s time to ask ourselves: Are we blindly following the statues made by our own kind? Or are we truly opening our minds to other ideas–ideas that may be valuable for us, may help us, may change our lives completely?


There’s a verse in the Bible that I’ve tried to live by for the last seven years:

“Let your gentleness be known to all men.”

Gentleness. It’s the first word my girlfriend uses to describe me. But as a kid, I was never gentle. I was very angry, sometimes even a little violent (as violent as a ten-year-old can be, anyway). Everyone and everything around me made me mad, and I didn’t bother hiding it.

I grew up feeling like I had to win every argument and fight. I thought I had to fight for myself whatever the cost. My weapons were sarcasm and a loud voice. If we’re honest, becoming an adult doesn’t fix any of that.

But try living by that verse for a while. When I first read it, all the conflict and stress became a little more black and white. I understood why I had a hard time leading and keeping peaceful friendships.

So I memorized it and thought about it every day for months. I stopped talking as much, stopped insisting on being right, and stopped expressing anger.

I can honestly say, that may have been the biggest turning point in my life. I don’t live in stress and conflict anymore. I don’t drive people away.

“Let your gentleness be known to all men.”

I still refocus on that verse regularly, still live by it. And I can tell you from my own experience: For the sake of your own peace and the peace of your relationships, gentleness is one of the most valuable characteristics you can create in yourself.