Ice Cube taught us that we need to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. And, certainly, I’m a proponent of intentionality, thoughtfulness and self-reflection. But, how much checking is too much checking? Can you also wreck yourself by over checking yourself?
It shows up time and again in our professional lives. That instinct to check ourselves before we speak. It’s universal. And, when you are a lawyer in a corporate environment, it can be especially pronounced. Because, if you are doing it right, you are making an extraordinary effort to be a strategic partner to your business colleagues. This requires, among other things, that you wear your business and legal hats at the same time. And translate between what can often feel like two different languages. In rapid motion. Some days, while juggling and doing cartwheels…
One of the traits often highlighted as essential for these types of roles, as well as for outside counsel working directly with non-legal businesspeople, is the ability to reduce complex concepts and ideas into concise plain language that is user-friendly and easy to understand and apply. Sounds simple, right? And, when you see someone do it well, it can appear almost effortless.
But, it’s not. For many reasons.
One being that, as any lawyer will tell you, the nuance matters. The nuance is often almost the whole thing. So, simplification comes with a very real risk of missing the point entirely. Or just sharing conclusions, which can sometimes come across as issuing directives and create a challenging dynamic between the legal department and the rest of the business. There is an ideal balance of sharing enough to bring people along and empower your business partners without bogging them down or losing them in the details, and it’s a hard one to achieve.
Also, as anyone who lives or works in their non-dominant language can tell you, the need to translate ahead of and during everything you do adds an additional layer of challenge and complexity. And, again, when someone does it well, it can lead people to benevolently take for granted all that goes into it.
So, all of this brings me to the dance we do in our minds as we ready ourselves to participate in business. All on the same team. All with the same ultimate goal. Each with a different perspective. Some with a completely different language.
Legal is not the only department that speaks a different language sometimes, of course. So, these truths are fairly universal. However, legal is the function with the reputation for bringing the womp womp. For being the perennial Charlie Brown’s teacher. (That’s not how it should be and that’s not at all what I believe strategic lawyers actually bring to the table. But it is a long and storied bias that we often bear by virtue of our training and title.)
And, so, we walk on our tight rope into the meeting. As I have talked to colleagues, clients, mentees and friends, one theme that has emerged is that this tightrope can make our inner critic extra loud and limiting.
There are many ways this can show up. One is a tendency to want to minimize, shrink or altogether eliminate whatever it was you were otherwise going to contribute. Sometimes, it’s to avoid losing people or being perceived as overcomplicating things. Others, it may be to avoid creating anxiety or seeming to be calling people out. Maybe you are worried about wasting time or boring people. So, you tell yourself to keep it simple. That it doesn’t count as a critical update. Maybe better to just sit this one out.
A related tendency is one to avoid asking the question on your mind because you assume it’s not welcome or maybe everyone already knows the answer. Maybe you’ll slow things down. Maybe it’s stupid.
Or, maybe you don’t offer your opinion because you’re worried you might be wrong. You want to check first to make sure you’re on solid ground. Would other people agree with the position you want to take? (Law school with the Socratic method, high pressure and intense competition did not train us to be okay with getting it wrong.)
So, how do we make it okay? Okay to risk not being perfect? Okay to be vulnerable? How do we not check ourselves so much that we wreck ourselves?
For me and others I’ve worked with, it’s been helpful to know that you are not alone in hearing this internal chatter. It’s part of being human. We all have a safety instinct that would rather us play small and stay in our comfort zone than actually put ourselves out there at the risk of being misunderstood or missing the mark.
It’s also helpful to recognize this as a voice of your safety instinct as opposed to your own voice or your own truth. When it’s encouraging you to think about how your partners will best engage with the content you’re bringing, you’re in the zone of realistic thinking. When it’s saying no one wants to hear what you have to say, your critic is clearly jumping in.
Also, knowing our safety instinct will never go away, it is helpful to find tools to act in spite of it. Brave, not fearless.
For me, I like to focus on purpose. And values. What is more important than my fear right now? Conveying information and asking questions that will help my business partners achieve their objectives, find creative solutions, plan ahead and appropriately manage risk. That is why I bring the things to the table that I do. That is why I ask the questions that I do. And, that is more important than any fear of getting it wrong or looking stupid.
You can also ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen? So, your contribution is not perfectly eloquent. So, you didn’t precisely thread the needle of detail and simplicity. So, no one understood why you asked that question. So what? (I know that is a hard statement for the Type A among us. But, really, so what?) The alternative is far worse. Also, remember your business partners are human too.
Progress starts with believing another way is possible and taking the leap. Focus on your values, on your intention, and then just AIM.
Do this regularly and pay attention to what happens as you do. Each time you are vulnerable enough to put yourself out there, you are inviting others in. And, before long, you will see stronger and more impactful collaboration and, ultimately, relationships. From there, the holistic rewards reinforce the limited personal risk.
So, go on. Be bold. Be brave. Take up space. Use your voice. And, by speaking up, make it okay for others who may be dealing with an inner critic of their own.