Two words that kill your influence instantly

Last Saturday, I was out with two friends, one a Parisian and the other a Brit who was fluent in French. The Parisian, a former dancer, was telling us (in French) about how she had had memory slips in performing which she was never really able to “surmonter.” 

“How do you say surmonter in English?” she asked innocently, not realizing she was sparking an invisible battle of survival. “Overcome,” said the Brit. “Get over,” I said.

“No,” he said, “overcome is the right word,” as if there were no room for debate.

I didn’t disagree, but as someone who has experience with memory slips, “get over” is how I would have put it. I noticed I was triggered by his assertion, but didn’t think it was worth debating.

Except, after my friend finished her story, he brought it up again, launching into a mini-lecture why overcome was a better translation. “Get over is something you do in a break up,” he said.

Now, he didn’t actually say “I’m right and you’re wrong,” but since I’m someone who cares about the precision of words, he might as well have.

Notice, this was a casual dinner conversation with a friend and an acquaintance. The stakes couldn’t have been lower — and yet, I found myself feeling defensive and critical of him.

This exact same dynamic is happening all day, everyday in workplaces around the globe where important decisions are being made and there are budgets, careers and reputations at stake.

Focused on survival, our primitive brain is constantly gauging our relative status in the group. Being wrong translates into lower status and triggers the “fight, flight (or freeze, in my case)”  reaction.

That’s why, no matter what we’re talking about — there are brilliant PhDs arguing over expense reports — our default priority is making sure we’re “right.” 

That’s why one of the most inflammatory things you can say to someone is “you’re wrong” (or “you don’t get it” or “what are you talking about?”). You might as well punch them in the face.

Here’s the thing: When we’re focused on not being wrong (i.e. survival), we can’t create connection. We can’t build trust. Which means we lose our ability to influence. If this dinner scenario had been in a professional context and the Brit came to me asking a favor, my primal response would have been not to help (overcome that, baby!).

But when we care more about connection than being right, we acknowledge there are other perspectives: “Here’s where I’m coming from, I’d like to better understand your point of view.”

We take responsibility for someone’s lack of understanding: “Maybe I’m not being clear, let me try again.”

So it’s up to you. Would you rather be right or influential?