Here's a Simple Test of Things We Say to Other People

In a well-known quotation, there’s a simple and powerful lesson about dealing effectively with subordinates and with people in general.

This adage from writer, civil rights activist and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Maya Angelou rings true for me. I wish I had heard it a lot earlier in life and taken it to heart, because it would have made me a better boss, father, husband and person.

If you want to be an effective leader of people, it’s a good idea to tack these words up in your office somewhere, or better yet, tack them up permanently in your brain. We all can think of times when someone made us feel great or feel horrible. If we remember those times, we’ll be inclined to heed Angelou’s words when dealing with others.


To help jog your memory of such times, I’ll share a few instances from my life, maybe not the most important events, but clear illustrations of Angelou’s concept.

First to leap to mind is an encounter with a financial advisor when I was about 30 years old and just starting to invest money. I had bought some shares of stock; I got a notice that the stock was splitting; I wanted to know how that would affect the value of my holding.

I had met this advisor by sitting across the table from him at Rotary Club meetings. He was cordial, well spoken, engaging and upbeat. He seemed knowledgeable. So I made an appointment to seek his advice. He made light of my puny portfolio, said the stock split meant basically nothing and bragged about his method of stock trading.

I remember little of what he said other than, “Ted, what’s your objective?” as in, “Obviously you don’t have one.” I remember distinctly how I felt when I left his office: like an idiot. I never saw him again, nor wanted to. If he had treated me respectfully, he could have won a new client and maybe some referrals.

Then there was a salesman in a men’s store. An important job interview was coming up; my wife convinced me that my outdated, wide-lapel brown polyester suit would not exactly impress. So I went shopping, in my shabby corduroy slacks and cheap shirt.

The salesman, named Ed, saw me pull an expensive three-piece off the rack. He might have said, “There’s no way you could afford that.” Instead, he remarked, “You have excellent taste.” He put that suit back on the rack, then picked out a charcoal pinstripe that he said was modestly priced, yet attractive and would hold up well.

He chose a tie, sold me a nice topcoat and even showed me how to sling the coat over my arm and walk confidently into the interviewer’s office. How did I feel when I left? Like a winner. I got the job. I called Ed afterward and thanked him. I still remember him fondly.


Now the other side of the coin: How did I make others feel? While compiling an anthology for a publishing label I owned, I received a story from a young woman writer; it didn’t pass muster. I could have sent her a note thanking her for the submission and politely declining. Instead, I gave her chapter and verse on what was wrong with it. I bet she hates me to this day, and if so, I wouldn’t blame her. I would take that note back in a second if I could.

Of course I wasn’t always a jerk. In the town where I had my first newspaper job, there was a man named Dave, developmentally disabled but high functioning and well-liked around the community. He lived on his own. He loved to play basketball; he was no good at it.

Nonetheless I invited him to join the city rec league team I was forming. I drove him to the games. My teammates and I embraced him, treated him like just one of the guys. He got his share of court time. He’s in a team picture (league champions) that hangs on my office wall. Maybe Dave remembers me in a good way. I hope so.

So, perhaps there’s a good and simple test of things we say and do: How will it make the other person feel? It’s true that sometimes as leaders we have to deliver messages that aren’t at all pleasant. But we can still do it with an eye toward not knocking down but building up.  


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