Last year, I was working with the CEO of a pharmaceutical firm that specialized in allergy medicine. He had just joined the company and was preparing for his first big town hall-style meeting. As the new CEO, he recognized that people would want to know his plans. He prepared several slides about their position in the market, and their opportunities.
I asked, “What do you want people to take away?” He said, “I want them to know the allergy business is important. We might not be curing cancer, but allergies affect people’s lives.”
“In what way?” I asked.
He said, “My wife has allergies; when they act up, it ruins family events for her. She had to leave our son’s orchestra concert because she was wheezing so badly. She was so disappointed. She had been looking forward to it for weeks. People shouldn’t have to suffer like that.”
“Then why don’t you just say that?” I asked.
He looked at me in disbelief and said, “Is it OK for me to talk about my wife’s allergies?”
As the CEO, he felt that he should be professional, and just discuss business. In reality, his team wants to know who he is, and if he cares. He told the story about his wife’s allergies at the town hall, and the reaction from his new team was overwhelmingly positive. They were thrilled to know that their new boss was emotionally invested in their products.
Leaders often believe they need to dress up their words in “professional” language to be effective. Actually, the opposite it true. When you strip away the human element, you wind up losing the most compelling part of the message.
Discomfort with emotion is part of the problem. People are afraid to let things get too personal. This isn’t just a problem in business. We often clutter personal conversations with facts and directives that cloud the true sentiments we need to convey.
For example, a friend of mine needed to have a difficult discussion with his 17-year-old son. He and his wife were divorcing, and my friend had decided that he was no longer going to be a member of the synagogue they had attended as a family.
My friend hadn’t grown up Jewish. He was “unchurched,” meaning that he hadn’t been raised with any type of religion. His wife was Jewish. When they got married, he agreed that the children should be raised Jewish.
Now, with the divorce, he wasn’t going to retain his temple membership. But he was still committed to taking his kids. His challenge was how to tell his son, who was very committed to the Jewish faith.
My friend said, “I want him to know that I’ll still take him. But I don’t want him asking me why I’m not going anymore.”
“Why not?” I asked.
He said, “I don’t want him to think that I don’t like his being Jewish. I’m glad he’s Jewish. I’m glad my wife brought that into our family. I wish I had been raised with some kind of faith. I wish I felt as strongly about it as he does.”
Again I asked, “Then why don’t you just say that?”
Like my CEO client, he was afraid that if he got personal, it would backfire.
But nothing bad happens when you let people know how deeply you care. When you say what you really want to say, you ignite a much better conversation.