Three Dreaded Words

Photo Courtesy of  Flickr

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

I recently had an interaction with someone close to me that resulted in some deep reflection. In order to protect the innocent, I’ve created a hypothetical scenario that captures the gist of the interaction.

You’re in the kitchen at work, eating your lunch, minding your own business. A colleague with whom you are close hurries into the kitchen and rushes over to you. In a loud voice, he says the three dreaded words: “Why did you…”

You immediately lose contact with the outside world. You have no idea what the rest of the question is. Inside, you’ve got a whole conversation going on with yourself:

“What did I do wrong?”

“What explanation can I give for what I did wrong when I can’t even remember what happened?”

“Oh, no, I screwed up again!”

“That jerk, he’s always finding fault with me.”

“He’s not very skillful with his communication. I’m a leadership development expert. This is what I do for a living. I’ll tell him how he should be talking to me. That’s what I’ll do. Now I have a way to protect myself.”

And so you make up an explanation for why you did whatever it was that he asked you about (In your mind, “accused you of doing"). Then you lecture him on why he should never string together those particular three words. You dismiss the possibility that he was just trying to figure out what happened so it wouldn’t happen again. You go back to work, still feeling unsettled.

Upon reflection, you decide to let this situation go because you do have a good relationship. At the same time, you’re determined in the future to point out as neutrally as possible what happened for you and what the impact was. You still feel like you were the wronged party but you’re going to be the bigger person.

What did happen? Was I really being overly sensitive, as the person suggested? Or is there some toxicity to that particular combination of words that could bother others as well?

Probably both.

On the one hand, it’s obvious that the combination of “why,” “did,” and “you” is a real trigger for me and probably for other people.

Why = Fault finding. Just that word alone is a trigger for many people.

Did = Looking backwards. Okay, so one could justify trying to problem solve so it doesn’t happen again, but not sandwiched between the two other words.

You = You’re responsible. For conscientious people, this is like a knife wound.

On the other hand, could I have responded to his question more skillfully? After talking with a friend, I realized that perhaps I could have responded to his opening phrase with openness and curiosity rather than accusation. I could have acknowledged the desire underneath his complaint rather than attacking him: "Oh, it sounds like you wanted me to do something different with the...  What is it that would've worked better for you?"    

Lots of learning here. But I still think that combination of words is deadly.  What do you think?