The Cost of Words Unspoken

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 5 min read

I was recently sent a private message from someone on LinkedIn. It was a connection request with an accompanying sales pitch. I was asked to reply with the word “yes” if I was interested.

I replied with:

No, and I find this approach off-putting.

A few hours went by, and I got a response.

You are the only person out of 12,000 that said that.

Now, what is more likely?

That only one out of 12,000 people found this cold, impersonal, spammy sales message off-putting? Or, that only one out of 12,000 people said something about it being off-putting? One more option: this person is lying about messaging 12,000 people or that only 1 person has called them out.

In any case, it’s statistically unlikely that 1/12,000 (0.00833%) is an accurate representation of how people feel. It would be considered an extreme anomaly in most data sets. And I’m pretty sure that the Linkedin equivalent of a cold call is unlikely to make me such a distinct outlier.

Chances are that someone else made a remark that he’s not grouping with mine, but let’s assume that the worst thing he got aside from my response was “no.” This means that plenty of people are not saying how they really feel for one reason or another.

  • Maybe they don’t want to offend.
  • Maybe they don’t have the time or interest in saying something other than no or ignoring this person entirely.

Learning From Online Reviews

Online reviews, when graphed, are often bi-modal. It’s an inverse bell curve or a U shape.

Typically, it is an abundance of extremely happy and extremely angry reviews with a small number of reviews distributed in the middle. As a business owner, it is much easier to take your 5-star reviews and bring them up to an 8-9 than it is to turn over your 1, 2, and 3-star reviews. But, because few people leave mediocre reviews, we’re missing a tremendous amount of valuable information in the middle.

There’s gold in what’s left unsaid.

“If you don’t have something nice to say…

We’re missing the opportunity to learn from everything that is not being said. We’re doing it because we’re scared to offend, we’re scared to talk about things that matter, we’re scared of being different and alone.

There is an enormous amount of value within what is left unspoken. This happens in the feedback we get. This happens in the topics we encourage discussion around.

What we are allowed to talk about

The Three Big ‘Off-Limits’ Topics

You shouldn’t talk about politics, religion or sex at work. Right?

That’s because those topics can create an unhealthy work environment where people feel uncomfortable or polarized about their beliefs. We’ve decided these topics are mostly off-limits.

So, we discourage these discussions and any of the empathy and understanding we might get by being honest and kind.

Imposter syndrome.

You can talk about Imposter Syndrome. It’s a very real thing and it is widely talked about. Having the sense that, despite your years of practice, that you may not know what you’re doing, is by no means uncommon. Admitting to your fear of inadequacy is socially acceptable. In fact, it is almost encouraged.

We’re outspoken in our support of people who experience Imposter Syndrome. Because they can talk about it, we can support them.

Fear of failure

Some people are even so afraid of failure that they may not even take the action in the first place. It is difficult to think of the times where we fail to meet our own expectations or the expectations of others. Fear of failure feels very normal.

So, we have motivational quotes for these people, we try to boost them up, we want them to succeed. They can talk about it, and we can support them.

Fear of success

For how comfortable we feel with fear of failure, we talk about the fear of success far less frequently…but it’s still socially acceptable. We might roll our eyes at people worried about being too successful, or too popular…but we’d probably still encourage them.

For obvious reasons, talking about being too busy with clients, or having too much opportunity can be seen in a negative light, especially when you’re talking to someone that has the opposite problem. It reeks of the humblebrag. It’s practically begging for attention. But, it does exist. And yet, it’s much less comfortable to talk about.

There is a real danger in not being prepared for when things go right. If you do your job well, build your materials, master your pitch, and design a solution that’s a fit for the needs of the marketplace, you may find yourself in a position where you cannot take on any more work, or even worse, find yourself unable to provide the level of quality to those who have already bought from you.

So, fear of success is not something all that relatable and hence we don’t talk about it as much. There is less support.

Honesty helps us all

We need to stand up for one another to say what we’re all dealing with, to be vulnerable, to be honest. Leaving things unsaid in any aspect of life is a serious risk.

For all of the information on the Internet, and all of the workshops, speaking engagements, or seminars you could attend, our lessons in life will never be complete until we can get access to all of the information that is left on the cutting room floor as a result of the things we’re afraid to say.

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