Quiet word is more effective and more valued than bluster

You've heard of "buyer's regret," that moment of remorse you feel after spending a huge sum for an acquisition.

You've heard of "buyer's regret," that moment of remorse you feel after spending a huge sum for an acquisition.

More than once, I have experienced "sender's regret," the feeling I get a split second after pressing the send button on a sharply worded e-mail message.

It doesn't matter how justified I might feel in responding angrily to a fellow executive who has offended me in some way. I have found myself wishing I could hit the recall button almost as soon as the e-mail has departed my outbox. It isn't easy being collegial. We define ourselves by how we communicate in the heat of battle. An e-mail hastily sent in anger can define us in anything but a positive way.

As senior counselors, we must consciously find our voice in what we say in meetings, in e-mails, in phone conversations, and one-on-one. What we choose to say, and when and to whom we say it, can have a profound effect on the respect we gain in an organization.

For example, when a major decision is being made, it is easy for an unintended consequence to be overlooked by a team member. Pointing out such unseen impacts is what can make each of us more valuable to our organizations. But we have choices in the way we reveal these blind spots. We can shine the spotlight on them with great fanfare at large meetings, or we can quietly bring them to the attention of a colleague, allowing him or her to address the issue behind the scenes. The end result is the same, but, by showing discretion, we become even more valued.

We all appreciate colleagues who take us aside at critical moments and provide constructive feedback on ways in which we can be more effective. I can recall conversations that took place months or even years earlier in which a peer gave me sage advice that helped me avoid a pitfall. In business, in sports, or in life, teams that are mutually supportive tend to outperform those that are made up of lone rangers.

The dynamics of team communication certainly require us to decide when to take a stand, even when we are in the minority. In deciding when to stand firm, I often ask myself this: Do I feel the issue in question is one that truly jeopardizes the fundamental values of the organization? If not, I try to honestly assess the underlying reason for my opposition. If it comes down to something more routine, like definition of roles, I'm more willing to seek a compromise.

There clearly are times when we have to serve as the Paul Revere for our organizations or clients, alerting our leaders to genuine danger. But before we climb on the horse and begin shouting, we'd better be sure the threat is real. In too many cases, communications counselors get a reputation for pulling too many false alarms and the fire brigade stops responding. To enhance our credibility, we must be selective and measured in assessing risks and sounding the warning.

We should look beyond the "send" key when deliberating over potentially alarming, self-serving, or overly critical e-mails or other communications. At such moments it may be more prudent to reach for the delete key instead.

Tom Martin is SVP of corporate relations at ITT Industries.

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