Worrying about what we should say or said

It is natural to worry about what we should say or should have said. We have been conditioned to improve our presentation style, be assertive, add value in conversation, etc. So, it is natural to want to over prepare and try to do it right.

Except – it is impossible to do it right all the time. We say a lot during the course of a day and there is no end to worrying about whether we said the right things.

A better approach might be to shift this focus from our words to our actions. Many talk, few do. And, more often than not, our actions speak louder and clearer than the words we speak. The colleague who follows up to your request when she didn’t need to and the manager who didn’t make any changes to your role despite your unhappiness said plenty without saying a single word.

In the long run, we are, on average, better off spending our energies on being better doers than we are better talkers.

PS: The best part about this approach is that the focus on doing makes us much better speakers with relatively minimal effort by simply taking all the pressure of the speaking.

Intent over words

Productive intent is a pre-requisite for a good conversation. Polished and thoughtful delivery definitely help – but, they’re secondary. People listen for intent before they listen to the words.

That is why the most productive conversations typically involve people who trust each other.

In the absence of deep trust, there are only two other routes to productive conversations. The first is to build a reputation for having good intent and to lean on it. And, the second is to signal intent early. Start with appreciation and the why behind your feedback before you give your feedback.

Intent is what people remember when they’ve long forgotten the words.


A friend, who is a restauranteur, once joked – “If a restaurant brands itself as “authentic x cuisine,” it is probably not authentic.” Like a lot of good humor, there is some truth to it.

Most companies, regardless of size, describe themselves as entrepreneurial, transparent and all about work-life balance. Many resumes use words like “self starters” and “lifelong learners.”

This is similar to the authentic cuisine problem. It makes sense that we throw these words out in the hopes of influencing people who’re searching for folks like us. But, how long before we’re found out?

A crazy idea – stick to simple words that you know to be true. In the long run, they do better than some aspirational marketing strategy that’s just not real. As a bonus, you’ll also learn to see things as they are instead of how you’d like them to be.

We need to be able to understand reality before we’re able to influence it.

Listening to what people do

When I was in my 10th grade, a close friend played a trick on me. He began by telling everyone he had recently bought a snooker table at home. This was right after our summer vacations during which we had played a fair bit of snooker. We all enjoyed the game and I was really excited about this new table. He described where he’d put it in his house and his plans for snooker evenings on weekends in great detail.

No snooker evening happened, however. I badgered him for 4 straight weeks and there always seemed a new excuse. It was only after a few weeks that he finally admitted that there was no snooker table – I was the only one who had believed him without question. Why else had he made an excuse every week for 4 weeks in a row? I was the sucker and needed to be less gullible.

I didn’t know it then but this friend had unwittingly taught me an important lesson. Growing up in India, it is sadly the norm to not believe what people say. I’ve observed a shocking lack of follow up (i.e. integrity in action) – promises are often forgotten and, in the rare cases they are remembered, they are delivered either late or lacking in quality. Since tardiness, ego, and a general lack of integrity is the norm, getting work done often requires a fair amount of political maneuvering. Understanding what makes people tick is an important part of understanding the politics in any situation. And, it is impossible to understand what makes people tick by listening to what they say. It is all about listening to what they do.

I clearly wasn’t ready for this lesson after the snooker table incident but, ten years and many burnt fingers later, I finally understand what I failed to understand back then.

In the “A Song of Ice and Fire” / “Game of Thrones” series, there is a lovely saying – “words are wind.” Words are wind means that words are as fleeting as the wind. So, don’t bother about what someone says. Instead, watch carefully as to what they do. This is a deep lesson because this discrepancy between words and actions isn’t necessarily about nasty intentions. I’ve met some really nice people who were just unable to match their words and actions. The most common reason I’ve found is that humans often adopt various facades to disguise their fears and insecurities. As a result, they’re caught between being who they pretend to be and who they really are. I am guessing it is possible to eventually get lost among these various facades and forget who you really are. Or, it could just be a lack of courage to be who they really are.  That would mean facing up to the resistance and that powerful force – the fear of failure. And I know people who’ve unwittingly made it their life’s mission to run from these forces. Over time, this results in a large discrepancy between who people believe they are and who they really are. I’m sure you have enough experiences of several annoying folk who consider themselves perfect and infallible – so I won’t labor this point.

It is tempting to get into judgmental mode. So, let me get straight to what I think are the implications for us.

First, really pay attention to what people do. Don’t listen to them talking about family life and priorities – just look at their calendars or how they spend their time. Don’t listen to them talking about the importance of parenting – look at their relationships with their kids. Don’t listen to them talk about self control – look at whether they’re able to exercise self control over food, tobacco and alcohol. Over time, these actions will drown what they say. This is a big lesson and one I’m only learning now (better late than never I guess).

Second, disregard first impressions. A natural implication of the point above is that first impressions are useless as they are based almost entirely on what people say. For example, a close friend actually actively guards herself against folks who are eloquent. Take time to get to know people. Watch what they do. Watch the little things. Really understand them.

Finally, use this understanding to identify and spend more time with like-valued folk. Life is short and we all have limited time to make this world a bit better while having fun and sharing happiness in the process. It is too short to spend time with jerks and people we actively dislike. In some cases, we dislike people because they are jerks and in most cases, it is just because we don’t “fit.” That’s okay. As long as we’re working hard, learning, and doing good, different styles and approaches are welcome. It takes all kinds to make the world.

Andrew Carnegie clearly agreed – “As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.”