I recently watched the documentary on the 20-year anniversary of the Olympic figure skating attack involving Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. I knew the overall story but didn’t know the details of the attack or the events preceding the attack leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.
I knew that Harding was vilified and thought Kerrigan was the hero of the story. What surprised me most is how Kerrigan was viewed immediately after the attack, as well as after winning the silver medal at the 1994 Olympics. Much of the perception of Kerrigan and, for that matter, Harding came not only from what they said, but the way they said it.
For example, after winning the silver medal, Kerrigan and the bronze medal winner had to wait for gold medalist Oksana Baiul before the medals ceremony started. The wait was 20 minutes and was for Olympic officials to find a copy of the Ukrainian national anthem. Someone mistakenly told Kerrigan the delay in the presentation was because Baiul had cried off her make-up and was getting it retouched. Kerrigan was frustrated and caught on-camera saying, “Oh, come on. She’s going to get up there and cry again. What’s the difference?”
While that may have been true, it was her delivery that didn’t sit well with fans and the general public. Similarly, after she returned to the United States, Disney World in Orlando, Florida held a parade for her. Kerrigan was in a car with Mickey Mouse at the happiest place on earth and a video camera caught her saying “This is dumb. I hate it. This is the corniest thing I have ever done.”
Kerrigan claims she didn’t mean the parade, but the video gave a very different impression and caused her a lot of grief.
A few days before watching this documentary, a friend of mine put out a call for help. He was looking for contacts and referrals for a business project. I responded and he told me what he was looking for. I made a recommendation and the response I got back was basically, “Let me see if I get a better offer.” He said he’d get back to me if he needed me. My thought at the time was, “Don’t bother.” I knew what he meant, but the delivery was wrong and made me not want to help.
With these instances in mind, here are three tips to help communicate more effectively what you mean and help avoid these types of awkward moments.
- Think before you speak. It’s ok to take a second to think about how you want to respond to a question or opportunity. I don’t recommend taking 10 minutes before responding, but a quick second or two to gather your thoughts is appropriate. Be prepared to be honest, but be polite in the way you communicate and express your thoughts and feelings. Honesty is appreciated and accepted, but rudeness isn’t. If you want to be coy or tease, be careful in the way you do that. Make sure people know you’re teasing or it will come off as insincerity. Years ago in a PGA tournament Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were paired together. On the first hole as the players were being introduced, the announcer was going through Tiger’s long list of credentials and in the middle of it, Mickelson interjected something along the lines of, “All right already.” It caught everybody off guard, but everybody knew he was joking and everybody in attendance, including Tiger got a good laugh out of it.
- Don’t shoot down an offer of help until you know what all the offers are. As in the example of my friend, his response to me was probably premature and, in my mind, closed the door to my willingness to help. If his first option doesn’t pan out the way he hoped his chances of getting help from others has greatly diminished.
- Be careful what you say and who’s listening. You never know who may be listening in or in the vicinity. I counsel clients all the time to be aware of their surroundings if they want to talk about or share some confidential information. In today’s world of social media, anybody can break or share news. If you don’t want something heard or shared with the world, then don’t say it. If there are people that need to know, wait until you know you’ll have the privacy you want before sharing it. Airports, tradeshows and restaurants are common places where confidential information is overheard. In the last presidential election, Mitt Romney was caught on tape saying some unfortunate things about the general public. While there is no way to determine the impact his comments had, the effects were certainly damaging.
I have a relative that we all cringe a little when he starts talking to people for the first time. This relative has no filter and on more than one occasion has said things we know aren’t meant to be rude, but that offend people. When possible, we try to warn people who are meeting this individual for the first time that he means no harm, but inevitably he says something and someone is offended. Most of the time it’s simply the way he communicates it and the way he says it. In these instances it doesn’t matter that he didn’t mean to be rude, the damage is already done.
If you’re careful about the way you say things and communicate you can avoid a lot of unnecessary problems. The way you say things is as important as what you say.