As part of my professional life, I serve on boards of associations and non-profits. All of them entail some responsibility. This is a wonderful way to give back to the community and make deep and lasting friendships. It’s not bad for business either, but that’s not what I’m writing about here. Recently, while trying to fulfill one of my responsibilities for one of the boards, I found myself in an unpleasant and somewhat sticky situation.
In this case, my board responsibility entails writing the press releases for the events and sending them out. As a courtesy, I emailed the speaker whom the organization had booked to ask him if he had a press release that he wanted us to use. This person is a well-known speaker who has attained legendary status in the field. The full email message, names and other identifying information excluded to protect the innocent, went as follows:
We are all excited to have you speak.
I’m in charge of getting the word out to the press. Do you have a release prepared for this type of thing and is there anything that you’d like me to include?
The response was swift:
The release is up to you, I’m doing you the favor. My bio is attached if you need it. How many people are you expecting? Please don’t forget to send logistics and directions.
My immediate reaction was one of surprise, then of anger. “I’m doing you the favor.” My goodness, we are prickly now, aren’t we? But upon rereading my message, I could see where I went wrong. So I counted to 10 and sent back the following message:
I can see by the way I wrote the email that you might think I wanted to shift the responsibility to you. In fact, I just wanted to extend a courtesy. As a board member for a couple of years, last year in charge of programming, I have found that some people are picky about that kind of thing.
I’m happy to do it – had already gotten started, actually, even including your [special honor he recently received]. I was there when you received that honor and suggested to the board that they contact you. So, certainly, I’m deeply appreciative.
I’ll forward your email to the people who can help you with the other info. And I apologize if what I wrote offended you in any way.
And then, I guess, he counted to about 25,000 because later on that day he responded:
No offense, it’s just that I do these events as a favor to the profession and I don’t want to work too hard before them. Again, make sure I have logistics and directions well in advance.
The favor thing again. And the command to provide him with additional info. I was tempted to respond “Yes, sir!” because, by this time, I was getting steamed, so I decided to… let it go. Ahhhh, that deep breath felt good. I notified the president of our organization that I may have caused offense and received a response that this individual’s emails can sound cranky, but he’s really fine. The president then gave me some info regarding the headcount that I inferred he wanted me to forward to our speaker. So I did. Big mistake. My email:
See below re: attendees and logistics from chapter president, _____. I also just received an email from him reminding ____ to send you the other info you requested. Please let us know if there is anything else you need.
What am I missing? I don’t see any logistics. Where, when, duration, etc.? Have someone call me on Monday or Tuesday, and let’s sort this out.
That was the end for me (she said). No really, it was. I decided that direct action was required. I told the president that I was taking myself out of the communication equation, wished him luck and expressed my sympathy. Then I sent the following to the speaker:
I have tried to be as solicitous as I can be on this, but clearly I am the one who is missing something. I am not as in charge as you might like me to be. The people who can help you may be traveling or have other pressing business. I don’t know if they can get back to you when you would like. I don’t keep their calendars and they respond to me when they can. What I do know is I don’t have all the information you need. Now you know that, too. I have alerted them, copied the on the last email I sent you and this one as well. I think that it would make more sense if you communicated directly with them from this point on.
That did the trick. Of course, I wasn’t in on further conversations so I don’t know who else bore the brunt of this person’s ire. I don’t want to know. At least I’ was out of it. I don’t mind being abused when I’m being paid, but I don’t do it for free. I did learn some lessons though.
I can’t help but wonder if I had picked up the phone and called instead of emailing, whether there would have been so much miscommunication. As one of my former professors, the late, great Neil Postman, never tired of saying “Technology is a Faustian bargain; it gives something and it takes something away.” The unfortunate reality, brought home to me in this case, is that written communication can be hazardous and lacks the sensitivity necessary to negotiate delicate or explosive issues. Of course, one could wonder what in the world would make such a situation explosive or delicate, but, hey, you never know what’s going to set someone off. Anyway, in substituting writing for speaking, we forfeit the ability to listen to the powerful nonverbal cues of the human voice, which, in this case, would have immediately alerted me to my original faux pas and allowed me adjust my tone, choose my words and extricate us both in a short amount of time. Perhaps the rest could have been avoided.
I will also say that I have to wonder what makes a person like our speaker tick. Maybe it’s a command and control personality issue or the need to have the last word. You would think that with all his supposed success, he would have been a bit more generous and not felt the need to tell me he was doing us a favor not once, but twice.
Whenever people behave in such ways, it makes me question their competence in their chosen field. I can’t help it. If they have to tell you what a big deal they are, they must not be so great.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he was just having a bad day. I do plan to attend the meeting and hear him speak. I’m not dumb enough to think there isn’t something I can learn. After all, legends are people too. And he’s already taught me so much.Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.