No one is immune to foot-in-mouth disease

The comings and goings, missteps and wisdom of famous people can sometimes provide useful lessons to us. Sometimes their example provides positive behavior patterns that we can learn from and profitably imitate. And, of course, we can also learn from their mistakes.

One example of a lesson-rich conversation occurred at the recent G20 summit held in Cannes, the French Mediterranean resort. During a break, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and President Barack Obama were talking and apparently did not realize that a technical mistake meant the nearby microphones were still live. They were talking about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Their conversation was not recorded, but reconstructed from memory by numerous reporters who heard their words. As a result, there are some differences in the precise wording of the quotes we have seen from the two leaders. According to the French website Arret Sur Images (roughly, “freeze frame”), which first broke the story, the key elements of the conversation about Netanyahu went this way:

Sarkozy said, “I can’t stand him. He’s a liar.”

And Obama responded by saying, “You’re tired of him; what about me? I have to deal with him every day.”

The now-revealed conversation between the two leaders is clearly embarrassing to both. Sarkozy and Netanyahu had known each other for many years and were thought to be personal friends. The disclosure was especially hurtful for the U.S. in view of Israel’s key role as an ally, often our only ally, in addressing the current Middle East turmoil as well as Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Beyond that, there is a management lesson that we should learn and skills we should master if we want to be entrusted with greater management responsibilities in today’s workplace.

The accidentally overheard conversation contains two elements that are typical of many conversations. The first was Sarkozy’s expression of his opinion of an absent third party. People vent this kind of opinion all the time — more freely it seems in today’s workplace, but the practice is probably as old as human language. Think of one caveman saying to another, “Uggh not like Sakk. He stink.”

The second element is Obama’s response, which was basic agreement with the opinion expressed, combined with an effort to amplify his own share in the sacrifices they were both making in having to deal with the third party.

This pattern of statements is one of the most common, and one of the most common hazards, of today’s workplace. Usually called antiphony by the experts, the rhythm of this speech pattern seems to touch a basic chord in humans, whether in music or conversation. It appears in written form at least as far back as the Old Testament and Plato’s Socratic Dialogues. It is natural for us and that is its strength and its danger.

The strength comes because there is something that feels “right” about this conversational rhythm. You say something, then I say something and on it goes.

The danger comes from the same source. The rhythm feels so right that we are reluctant to break it. When one person says something, we feel that we should respond, often in some kind of agreement.

If we are not careful, our natural instincts can draw us into agreeing with the negative opinion expressed. And this can get us into trouble.

To avoid this, managers need to master the skill of redirecting a conversation so that our natural response doesn’t torpedo our career. After Sarkozy said what he did, for example, Obama could have said something like, “That makes what you have been doing in these negotiations even more impressive.” That way, the conversation is redirected back to the original speaker rather than to the anticipated agreement response.

Second thoughts about “what I should have said” are probably as old as spoken language, too. But in some cases they can be worthwhile. They can help us understand our own responses and avoid the minefields that can blow up our chances for advancement, at least next time.

The goal is to set and control our own pattern of conversation so that it seems natural. Not everything that someone says to us deserves a response, let alone agreement. It’s OK to break the rhythm sometimes, especially when someone is venting their frustration or resentment. And it’s certainly OK to redirect a conversation.

What’s most important is learning how to hear what we are going to say and think about it before we say it. For managers, the workplace is really show time, and we don’t want to mess up our lines.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant. He can be reached by email at otisrep@aol.com.

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