I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
– Maya Angelou
In a training workshop with leaders in Chicago recently, I said something I hadn’t said before.
As I showed a slide with Maya Angelou’s thoughts, I told them that if they remember nothing else from our day together, this would be enough to transform their communication in business and life: People will never forget how you made them feel, and trust is a feeling.
If a leader can’t build trusted relationships, nothing else matters. And people make feeling-based decisions on whether they trust you.
This is particularly true of emotionally charged situations because they deeply encode themselves in our minds. Scientists monitoring real-time brain activity with MRIs have confirmed that we are tribal animals making emotionally based decisions.
Protecting our status
At work and at home and everywhere in between, we have encounters with others. By the end of the day we remember few details but we recall how their communication made us feel.
Think about it from your own perspective:
What do you remember from all of the communication you had last week?
What do you recall from the CEO’s presentation at the all-employee meeting; from that call with your boss; from that personal conversation with your love interest?
Chances are you don’t remember the specifics, but you do retain the emotion – perhaps stress, pleasure, anger, joy, or regret.
That’s a huge part of why we remember few details but we always remember how others made us feel. Throughout the development of human history, we had to know where we stood in the group and with our leaders to protect our status as a member of the tribe. Look around your organization and you’ll know that’s still true.
Build or break trust
As leaders – and we are all leaders of influence in one way or another – our communication can have a powerful impact. People not only listen to our words, but to our tone and our attitude.
Together, these three elements give us the power to lift people up, to inspire them, or to wound them. All of these factors determine whether we build or break trust in our relationships.
If I ask you to reflect for a bit, I’m sure you can come up with something positive that was said to you by a parent, a teacher, or a friend that is still with you today.
On the other hand, if you’re like the people I coach, you can easily recall, and fixate on, a comment that was cruel or hateful. (One of the leaders in a workshop last year shared with me a decade-old comment a high school boy made about one of her facial features.)
We say we let it go, but the truth is we retain these forever. Right now, you can feel the result of that cutting remark from high school, elementary school, maybe even kindergarten.
You remember how they made you feel.
What we say, especially the negative, can last a lifetime. It’s why we have to use this power with great care. Instead, we don’t plan our communication and often blurt out what comes to mind in the moment. We may regret it later, when it’s too late.
How about you?
With your communication style – your words, your tone, and your attitude – how do you make people feel? Are you building trust?
Do they feel respected, or belittled?
Empowered, or micro-managed?
Engaged, or turned off?
As leaders, we should be more mindful. This doesn’t mean we can’t be firm or assertive, but we should be aware of the impact of our communication beyond our intended message.
Because they really won’t remember what we said, or what we did, but how we made them feel. And trust, after all, is a feeling.
Try to be observant this week and if you can’t figure out how you make them feel, there’s an easy way to find out: Ask and then listen carefully.