Life is full of bridges and matches–the trick is to keep them away from each other.
To paraphrase Harvey Mackey, “If you are going to burn bridges, you’d better be a darn good swimmer.”
Like most people, I frequently would like to speak my mind when I know doing so might put an end to a relationship for good.
But I don’t. Nearly ever. [See Note below.]
Many years ago as a young editor, I was working at my university in an exceptional but temporary position that promised to become permanent. One day, my director called me at home, which was highly out of the ordinary, to say that the position had, in fact, been made permanent. In confidence, she told me that, although I was the most and best qualified candidate, she couldn’t hire me because of certain hiring policies. I was angry and hurt and, from my perspective, justifiably so. It just didn’t seem right or fair. However, despite what I thought and wanted to say, I thanked her for calling me and for the opportunity she had given me.
Then I threw myself into a tub of ice cream and cried.
Shortly after that I was offered a much more profitable and prestigious position as the director of a publications office at the university, in large part because of that manager’s glowing recommendation.
PRINCIPLE: We are all going to be disappointed or hurt in our personal and professional lives. Lashing out in anger, or disparaging the company or an individual, or seeking to hurt or cause damage in response is self-defeating.
Many years ago my husband was laid off, along with 400 others, because the company lost their primary government contract upon the passing of new legislation. Michael loved–and we needed–that job desperately. On the fateful day, three managers sat across the table from him and delivered the news. One of his managers was visibly shaken. Although my husband was devastated, he thanked them for the kind way in which they had told him, assured them that he would be alright, told them that he was grateful for the opportunity to have worked at such a great company with such good people, and said that he understood that it wasn’t anyone’s fault.
Within a week, he was rehired by the same company at another location with his good reputation intact.
So why not go on the offensive (or defensive) when you’ve been overlooked or hurt?
PRINCIPLE: The world is small. Especially within most given spheres. People talk with colleagues at other companies. People move from one business to another at a rather astounding rate these days. And you had better believe, they carry tales with them – like the one about the woman who went ballistic and trashed her manager’s office before security escorted her out the door.
You know the old saying: What goes around comes around, which leads to the next principle.
PRINCIPLE: The person you don’t alienate may become your best ally, a future supervisor, a co-worker, or your mother-in-law. The person you denigrate, snub, fight with, or choose to be offended by could turn out to be someone with the power to positively or negatively shape your future.
This next story is a little embarrassing. I had a potential client many years ago who would not stop hounding me for reduced rates and additional free services. She rang my phone constantly throughout the day. She asked to bring a colleague along with her for the price of one. After several weeks of painful negotiations, I forwarded one of her acerbic emails to my husband, telling him I was going to get rid of her by quoting her an exorbitantly high rate. ( Remember, I was young and naïve, and a little foolish.)
You can probably guess what happened. The email was sent Reply All. She called me and told me that I was a pretty poor image management professional if that was the way I spoke about people and treated client prospects.
The problem was, she was absolutely right. And that’s what I told her, along with my abject apology. “What were you thinking,” you might say. “You were off the hook!” But I had behaved without grace, I had hurt her, and I had diminished myself. Believe it or not, she accepted my apology with a surprising grace of her own. Then promptly declined my offer of a complimentary consultation.
PRINCIPLE: There is a higher reason for not burning bridges by saying the thing you’d most like to say, behind the back or right to the face of the person to whom you’d most like to say it. This has to do with honing character traits such as grace, humility, integrity, self-control, forgiveness, and optimism. If the tables were turned, how much would you appreciate a gracious response?
I wish I could say that I’ve never burnt a bridge. I guess I have a few times, and I’m sorry for that now.
I was inspired to write this article because, not too long ago, I needed to terminate a professional contract. The other party responded with a load of TNT that obliterated the professional bridge we had established. His words and behavior changed entirely the way I view him. I was a little surprised, but mostly I just felt sorry for him. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me because I couldn’t control my tongue or my feelings.
Editor’s Note: These principles do not apply to situations that are abusive, illegal, or that need to be addressed in a direct and civil manner.
Some bridges do need burning to keep yourself or others from crossing into detrimental territory. Like Don Henley so profoundly said, “Sometimes you get the best light from a burning bridge.” The key is to carefully decide whether to demolish, close, or repair a bridge over troubled water.
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