Oswald Letter

In the heat of the moment, it’s best to look before you leap

Leapby Dan Oswald

My mother often said to me, “Look before you leap.” She was warning me to stop for a second and think before I threw myself headlong into whatever it was I was considering. That’s because out of her four children, I was probably the most impulsive. Let me reword that—I was the most impulsive.

I can remember a time when I couldn’t have been much more than seven or eight years old. The family was spending the day at a lake. We had been walking along the lakeshore exploring when the time came for lunch. I made a mad dash back to our spot in the sand to be the first one to the picnic basket—and I promptly dumped the contents into the sand. My impulsiveness had ruined lunch for the whole family.

I recently received an e-mail from someone who probably could have used my mother’s advice. It was from a colleague with whom I’m considering doing business. The e-mail questioned the truthfulness of something I had said and included his “proof” of my dishonesty. The problem was that he was mistaken, and I was able to quickly point out where his confusion had come from. Crisis averted, right?

I’m not so sure. It sticks in my craw that someone I’m thinking about doing business with would insinuate that I’ve been lying. You can question my intelligence or my work ethic, and I most likely will get past it pretty quickly. But if you question my integrity, well that’s tougher for me to swallow. I’m questioning whether I want to get involved with someone who was so quick to jump to conclusions without taking the time to gather the facts.

Here’s where I think he went wrong:

He didn’t gather all of his facts. He had one piece of information, and from that he leapt to his conclusion. If he had inquired about the circumstances and gathered all the information, he would have arrived at a different conclusion. Some of the confusion could be chalked up to a difference in business vocabulary between the two of us, and some could be chalked up to the fact that this specific situation involved a third party with whom he had a history.

He fired off an e-mail instead of picking up the phone. It’s always easier to be aggressive when you’re writing an e-mail and not talking to a person. I’d go so far as to say that face-to-face communication is the very best when you’re handling a delicate or potentially controversial topic. With e-mail, so much of the communication process is lost. You can’t hear tone. You can’t see facial expressions. You just have words on a screen, and you’re left to interpret the rest. The phone is better than e-mail because you can better discern tone, and it allows for an ongoing dialogue until the matter is resolved.

So what do I do to determine if I can get past this? I pick up the phone and talk to him. The distance between us doesn’t allow for me to meet with him in person, so I do the next best thing. I could get defensive or fire back an e-mail that only perpetuates the problem, but a frank conversation about the situation is the only thing that will allow me to see if we can get past it or if it’s a sign that this isn’t the right opportunity for either of us.

My mother was right when she advised that you should look before you leap. In today’s electronic world, it’s far too easy to type a quick message and hit the “send” button before really thinking things through. And the ability to hide behind the computer screen often allows us to write things we would never say to a person. For all the efficiencies we have gained from technology, we have lost an aspect of really good communication. It’s up to all of us to guard against allowing our communication habits to deteriorate to the point where they get in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish.