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When Work Feels Like a Bad Date

Liam Norris | Cultura | StockImage | Getty Images

The date was going fine, till I said something idiotic.

We were in college, and as we stepped outside, dead of winter, Boston, Ellen complained about the cold.

Instead of simply agreeing—it was freezing—I commented about "cold" being very psychological.

And relative.

I also may have mentioned Antarctica.

In the shiver of a second, "weather," the easiest ice-breaker in the world, had become a conversation-killer.

That's no small feat. But Ellen was unimpressed.

Weather, like everything else in life, is both objective and subjective. That's why weather.com gives you both the actual temperature, plus what it "feels like."

I picture a meteorologist at weather.com, trying her best each day to record the precise temp. (Antarctica, -129°F), but always getting pushback: "It can't possibly be -129°," someone argues. "It feels more like -130°."

At work, the split between "actual" and "felt" experience puts communication at risk, like a bad date.

Consider some examples (real):

1) Person A says: The boss wants to see you right away.

  • B hears: The boss wants to fire me right away.
  • Actual: The boss has an urgent problem, needs help.

2) A says: This decision is a no-brainer.

  • B hears: You think I have no brains.
  • Actual: Let's make this decision and move on.

3) A (the boss) asks: Are you happy here?

  • B hears: I don't fit in.
  • Actual: The company wants managers to monitor employee satisfaction.

4) A (returning from a leadership offsite) says: All options are on the table.

  • B hears: The company's about to go bust.
  • Actual: The company is exploring new sources of revenue.

5) A says: That's very good work, especially for someone at your level.

  • B hears: I'm at a very low level, it's embarrassing.
  • Actual: The work exceeded expectations, especially for a new hire.

6) A (scientist) says: I disagree with your interpretation of the data.

  • B (scientist) hears: I'm wrong. I'm incompetent.
  • Actual: There's another way to look at this data.

7) A (the boss) says: If we don't meet our production targets, someone's going to lose their job.

  • B hears: You're threatening me. (Who wouldn't hear that?)
  • Actual: Boss was told that his job was in jeopardy.

Tip: Before you get triggered by what someone said, check what she said—it may be different than what you heard.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com

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