You know that feeling you get when you say something you weren't supposed to say and it comes out a little louder than you anticipated? It's a naked moment, and there's nothing you can do to cover up. You goofed, everybody heard, and how you fare from here on out depends on what you do next.
When I started a new job three years ago, that's how I felt all the time. I came from a publishing company where the communication style was pretty loose. There were cupcake birthday parties, plenty of pranks, exciting meetings with loads of brainstorming, but there was also a lot of yelling, and a good dose of humiliation. When a very junior person offered an opinion at a meeting, a very senior person responded, "Can someone who matters please speak?" Tears flowed freely. It was an overworked, understaffed, underpaid, frantic environment in which the only way to get I.T. to help with a dead computer was to throw a fit and threaten to call the president.
I'd spent ten years at that company before moving to my new job. Somehow I didn't pay attention to the fact that everything—and I mean everything—was different at this office. People were busy but not frantic. Nobody snapped at anyone else, at least not in an obvious way. I didn't realize that all you needed to do to get I.T. to come was simply call and leave a polite message.
Not surprisingly, my requests were falling to the bottom of most people's list of things to do. I couldn't get anyone to cooperate. I had a rough time with one young man who told me about a decision that was made on one of my books when I wasn't in the room. "Over my dead body," I exclaimed, not intending anything other than to express my dismay at what I thought was a bad decision. But for the first time, I saw the intimidation embedded in that remark: His eyes popped open and for an instant fear flashed across his face. I saw clearly the effects of my own brashness and his sensitivity at the same time. I never wanted to see that look on anyone's face again, and I couldn't believe I hadn't seen it before. To continue to work with him, I'd have to climb out of the hole I'd dug for myself, but I couldn't see a ladder. Although my boss and I had frank discussions about the need for me to adjust my style of interaction, he had no practical help to offer.
I called my friend Tony—a management and branding consultant—and told him what was up. "Did you think about asking them for a coach?" he said.
"A communications coach. Your HR department probably has a list, and I bet they'll even pay for it."
I couldn't imagine that my company would—publishing is not known for having extra money for this kind of thing—but I asked, and my boss said yes right away. And that's when I met John Artise, my communications sensei.