Don’t Take It Personally

Last week I wrote about phrases that pay and one phrase that doesn’t pay (“Do you have a minute?”). To remind you, it’s important to create or discover phrases that pay – simple phrases that are so clear, rich and recognizable that they pay great dividends for the brands they are associated with. Here are a couple of examples of phrases that pay:

Think Different (Apple)

A Diamond Is Forever (De Beers)

Culture is not what you say it is, it’s what you show it is (Jeff Nischwitz)

These are phrases that pay, but there are also phrases (and questions) that most definitely DO NOT pay and which must be eliminated from our organizations and conversations.

Today, I want to focus on another phrase that does not pay, and I’m encouraging you to dump it from your conversations and organizations starting today. 

Don’t take it personally.

You know what I’m talking about. A manager is about to give you feedback and says, “Don’t take it personally.” A friend is about to say something to you and says, “Don’t take it personally.” The person speaking may feel better using this phrase, but it doesn’t help the recipient at all. In fact, when someone tells you to not take it personally, they’re actually saying something like the following:

“Get ready. I’m about to tell you something that you will almost certainly take personally, and it IS personal. And I don’t want to deal with an unpleasant reaction or have you not like me. I just want to tell you this and have everything be okay.”

Thanks a lot!

When someone says they don’t want you to take something personally, that’s really about the speaker. They don’t want you to take it personally so that they can feel that the relationship is protected and so they don’t have to worry (as much) that you won’t like them or that you will be defensive. This phrase is most definitely for the benefit of the speaker, not the recipient.

The truth is that the best feedback is, in fact, personal—and it should be. After all, it is about you as a person. In my life, I’ve found that the most important and best feedback did sting a little or a lot because it was true(even if I didn’t want to admit it). In reality, we want people to take what we say personally so that they will take it seriously and, hopefully, choose to work on it. 

Let’s consider a delicate situation in the workplace. There are times that team members have hygiene issues that cause them to have significant body odor. This impacts the team (especially the team member in question), and it can create disruption in the workplace. Admittedly, this is a challenging conversation, but do you really believe that telling someone “Don’t take it personally” and then telling them that they smell will work? Of course not.

Similarly, it’s a lie to tell someone “Don’t take this personally, but you’re failing in your position.” Likewise, telling your romantic partner “Don’t take this personally, but I’m not happy with you working all the time” makes no sense. It’s all personal.

Perhaps what we need to do instead of trying to soften the blow of input and feedback is to focus more on sharing our perspectives about behaviors and focus less on sharing our own personal judgments. Feedback is supposed to give someone useful information if they choose to make changes – it’s not intended to dump judgments on that person. In addition, making judgments does not help someone grow – it just labels them.

In most cases, the defensiveness is about the judgments or your tone and energy, more than the perspectives that you’ve shared. Communicating judgments also and often make the recipient angry, which lessens the chances that they’ll be willing or able to pull the good suggestion out of your judgmental words and implement it.

For example, telling someone that they are failing in their job is a judgment and, while it’s important for someone to know this, it doesn’t help them get better. Instead, we need to tell them the concrete ways they’re failing and give them specific direction on ways to improve their performance.

What’s particularly interesting about this phrase and concept – “don’t take this personally” – is that it’s often used with feedback, and feedback can be both positive (“You’re doing a great job”) and constructive (“You need to improve”). However, when you tell someone how great they’re doing, you don’t tell them “Don’t take this personally.” In fact, you want them to take the compliments and praise personally! See what I mean?

Feedback is feedback. Input is input. Perspectives are perspectives. Judgments are judgments. And they’re all personal to the person hearing them. Stop lying to the people around you, be clear and specific in what you want to share with them, and share it cleanly and with as little energy (e.g. anger, frustration, stress, disappointment, etc.) as possible. It’s time to dump “Don’t take it personally” and instead do the best you can at providing specific and supportive input and feedback, knowing that it IS personal.

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