You and your words

by Dr. Henry Cloud

Have you ever heard yourself say, “Whatever possessed me to say yes to this in the first place? Why didn’t I just say no?” Or, after negotiating a deal, have you ever thought, “Why didn’t I ask for –––––––? I could kick myself!” If you have, that is pretty normal or at least common. However, if it happens often, it is also a problem. It reveals that sometimes you and your words are not on the same page. You desire one outcome, but your words take you to a different one.

Dr. Henry Cloud
Dr. Henry Cloud (photo by Russell Baer Photography)

So we are going to look at the words that have to do with why you find yourself in certain situations more than you might think. We are going to examine your relationship to some key words, including how you feel about them and how free you are to use them, or not. Before we dive into looking at specific words and phrases, it’s important to understand how certain words become embedded, or internalized, in our lives.

Internalizations and pattern

One would think that when you say yes or no to something, your answer is based on the merits of what you want to choose. When you want to grant a request, buy a product, agree to a price, take an assignment or go to lunch with someone, you say yes. If not, you say no. But, in reality, that is not what always happens. Sometimes, you may be on autopilot and have less choice in your response than you may think. Think about people you know or even yourself. Have you noticed that there are people who routinely find themselves in some situation they do not want to be in? Inevitably, they land in some activity, relationship, scheduling conflict or problem they did not want. The reason is not that they failed to just say no once or twice. They basically never say no. Their choices are rarely about what they want or don’t want in a particular situation, but usually about their relationship with the word “no” itself. They are conflicted about the word at a very deep level. They reach down there in hopes of finding “no,” but it eludes them.

Or think of the person on your team you know you cannot send out to do that negotiation. When you need someone who can go into a meeting, ask for the moon, and expect to get it, this is the last person you’d call on. They just are the kind of people who never ask for what they want. For some reason, they can’t pull the trigger. As a result, they rarely get out of life what they desire, and oftentimes they don’t even get what they need. They get only what comes their way and nothing more. Then you know other people who go into a meeting, ask for the moon, and get it. You exclaim, “How did you get them to agree to that?” And they answer, “I just asked for it, and they said fine.”

The difference is not that one person wants or needs the outcome any more or less than the other. In fact, often the person who needs something the most is the one who finds it most difficult to ask. The real difference is that some people have a longstanding relationship with certain words that renders saying them virtually impossible. The result of not saying those words when we need to, or saying them when we don’t, is that our lives become fragmented and scattered – a far cry from the integrated one life we all want. Then we are truly out of control. I know one CEO of a tech company who says “I will” almost as if it were part of his breathing. When something needs to be done, he is ever ready and just says, “Sure, I’ll do that.” He doesn’t even think about it, until one of two things happens – either he finds himself way overcommitted and doesn’t know how it happened or someone is frustrated at his lack of follow-through.

Take the words “I think,” for example. I was working with a team of VPs, helping them to develop a team dynamic that was safer and more creative and risk taking. One of the VPs, Dennis, was particularly gifted, but he seemed to keep his ideas to himself in meetings, especially when Steve, the president, was in the room. I knew a lot about the deals they were working on and I was aware that there were a lot of times that Dennis knew more about them than the president. Yet he never spoke up to say what he thought.

I brought it up with the two of them together. I asked Dennis why there were times when he didn’t say what he was thinking. I knew it was safe to do that with me in the room, as Steve had brought me in to develop that kind of team. If the president had a problem with others speaking their minds, he would be indicting himself and I wanted that to happen with me there, not some other time when he would not be forced to see that he was the problem.

When I asked Dennis why he never spoke up, he froze and instantly, without realizing it, looked at Steve. “Why are you looking at him?” I asked. “Well, uh, I don’t know. I was just thinking,” he said. “Let me guess,” I said. “The reason you don’t say what you are thinking sometimes is that you are not sure how it is going to go down with Steve if you disagree with him. Is that right?” I asked. “Well, maybe. I mean, he is the president of the company. It’s his place to do what he wants,” he said. I turned to the president and asked, “Steve, is that what you pay him for? To just nod at whatever you think? Or do you want to know things that you might disagree with?” “Of course I want to know,” he said to Dennis. “Why do you think I brought you on? You have great experience in these areas that I know little about, and I need you to speak up. I am not going to shoot you.”

From there, we got into a great discussion and found out some important things. One was that Steve really did want to know when others disagreed, but he sometimes was unaware of how the ways he pushed back were intimidating to others. Steve had to recognize that while as a leader he desired honesty from his people, some of his behaviors made it difficult for them to be honest with him – the classic “say-do” gap.

We learned something else that was huge for Dennis and for the team. He realized that his fear of speaking his mind did not begin with Steve. Dennis had grown up with a military father who did not like dissenting voices in the house and ran the family like a combat platoon, handing out orders that were not to be questioned. Early on, Dennis learned to keep his thoughts to himself around authority figures. He developed a conflicted relationship with the words “I think.” In the face of an authority figure, he kept those words to himself and just nodded. It was automatic response. He talked about this in one team meeting and it was big for him.

This is not to say that there are no situations in which it would be wise to keep one’s mouth shut. In fact, that is yet another reason why this issue is so important. In contrast to Dennis, there are others who were not compliant to an authoritarian parent, and, instead, felt like they had to speak up to them no matter what the consequences. They could not keep quiet, no matter how much trouble it got them into. This is just as much an autopilot behavior as the opposite problem and both represent a loss of freedom.

If you had bad experiences when you spoke your mind, you developed a pattern of keeping silent rather than speaking up. If dissenting opinions resulted in a slap to the face or a loss of affection, you kept silent. And you still do – without thinking. It is now automatic. But, if speaking up were rewarded, then you do it well now, too. It all depends on your past experience, until you have new experiences that change the pattern.

I once worked with a leader who found himself granting more and more policy exceptions than he felt comfortable with to one of his direct reports. This employee always seemed to have special circumstances or a reason he felt he needed to be given more flexibility than company policy allowed. When I challenged the leader to look at it, he realized something. Although what he was doing did not make business sense, he was doing what he had gotten used to doing with a similar kind of person in his family – a brother who always seemed to need some kind of special treatment. Agreeing to requests for special treatment was automatic. So the thought of saying no never even occurred to him. He was just programmed that way.

Another executive I worked with had no difficulty asking for what she wanted for her company in negotiating contracts, making sales and doing their business. For her, the words “I want,” when speaking on behalf of the company, came freely and easily. But trying to utter those same words for herself was an entirely different matter. She was not nearly as free to say “I want” to her boss when negotiating her own contract or to her team when expressing her preferences about which part of the project she wanted to do.

When I brought up the discrepancy to her, it blindsided her.

She had grown up in a family where serving and giving were very high values, which is obviously good. It trained her to stand up for people, to ask on behalf of others and to use her power to get for others what they could not get for themselves. It had a moral high ground. But that same environment also taught her that wanting something for oneself is “selfish, prideful and self-centered.” She learned early that selfishness was one of the greatest of evils. But, as it was defined for her, it included not only the “I want it all for me” kind of selfishness we all deplore, but also the idea that wanting anything for yourself is bad. So her relationship with the words “I want” was one that prompted an internal tongue lashing if she ever got close to uttering them. She felt guilty for wanting such a thing and felt she should be thinking about others and not herself. Understandably, she developed a pattern of not asking for things for herself.

The takeaway here is twofold. First, you may have a pattern with certain words that you have never noticed and that pattern is the reason you find yourself in unwanted situations. Second, that pattern was learned in experiences that have been engraved in you and have made their mark. They are now a part of the way you automatically operate. It is time to become aware of your autopilot behaviors and get your hands back on the wheel of your words and your choices. You would do well to see where you learned not to say what you want or think or will or won’t do. There were probably good reasons you did that, but it is time to realize that those days are over and what might have served you well then is not helping you now.

From the book The One-Life Solution: Reclaim Your Personal Life While Achieving Greater Professional Success by Dr. Henry Cloud. Copyright © 2008 by Dr. Henry Cloud. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. The One-Life Solution is available through

Leave a comment