This is simple and there are no exceptions. Tell a lie once and all of your truths become questionable. Early in my career I heard a very experienced attorney say “a half-truth equals a whole lie.” He was correct because anything not 100% true is a lie. Another benefit of telling the truth was summed up to me long ago by a friend who once said he never lies because it’s far easier to remember the truth than a lie.
I know some of you are thinking of situations where you may soften the truth to try not to hurt someone’s feelings. You are right that some situations are more nuanced than others, making a one-size fits all rule difficult. I am not speaking to those type of outlier situations, but to general day-to-day life in which your reputation is at stake.
Your honesty is part of your reputation. You may not be called out or caught every time you aren’t honest, but it will catch up with you. You may lose relationships or opportunities that you know you lost or that just don’t come your way because of your reputation.
Trust is important, and like your reputation, it’s earned. The difference is people will assume you are honest unless or until they believe you aren’t or hear you aren’t from people they trust.
Once trust is lost it will either take a long time to earn back or it can’t be earned back. Once that happens it negatively affects and taints relationships. People may still deal with you (mainly if they have to, i.e. family or in the workplace), but it won’t be the same. Even if it feels like it, a lack of trust permeates a relationship for into the future.
This goes back to “think before you speak.” Lying is a choice. You can call it embellishment or whatever you want, but if others think you stretch the truth, know you have just made your road forward harder.
We are all good at telling a story, especially our own story. We are not as good at actively listening to others tell a story. This is true even when we are being paid to listen.
This is why it is important to remember how important it is to listen, which also means asking questions, especially asking the right questions. What the right questions are will depend on the situation.
If it is in a personal setting, you should view the person across from you as wearing a hat that says “make me interesting.” If it is in a business setting, you need to look at the person across from you and visualize them wearing a hat that says “I have an important story to tell you.”
For instance, as an attorney, the story and facts I am learning from a client, especially a new client, are integral to my ability to be able to properly advise and represent their interests. If I don’t ask the right questions or actively listen, I will miss important facts I need to do my job, and to do the best job for the client. These types of issues exist no matter what your line of work or profession is.
The next time you are dealing with someone new, whether a client, a sales opportunity, interviewing a new hire, or meeting someone personally, make sure you ask more questions than they do, and let them talk more than you do. Make sure you actively listen so that you can ask necessary follow-up questions and see where it gets you. My guess is it will lead to better business and personal relationships, and, in business, it will help you make sure you have the information you need to do your job.
I always hope to learn from my mistakes. Similarly, anything I count as a failure in my career has been a great learning experience. There also have been moments where I have received constructive criticism, which helped me in the long run, because I was open to hearing it. I feel lucky that the people who provided this type of feedback to me did so in a professional and meaningful way.
In doing so, they both complimented me and criticized me because it is important to provide positive feedback if you are going to provide negative feedback. They also do this in private, i.e. not in front of others or in manner meant to embarrass someone. This is important.
I have worked at firms during my career where partners thought young associate attorneys would be motivated by providing negative feedback in group settings. It came across as “so and so did ________, and you should too if you want to have problems too.” Of course it had the opposite effect, scaring other associates and, at one firm I worked for, caused a number of the associates to look for and find positions with other firms. I am not saying the feedback was wrong, but criticizing someone in front of others is harmful to that person and negatively affects other similarly situated employees.
The next time you need to provide criticism to an employee or someone you manage, do it in private, as well as in a constructive manner. I would never think to broadcast an issue to others instead of directly and privately with someone I work with or who works under me. The goal is to help the person improve and succeed, but how you deliver the message may or may not have your hoped for and intended results. You need to think through how you constructively criticize people because it can help your people and your business improve.