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Build Bridges Instead of Burning Them

In a former life, I used to be someone who burned bridges. As a writer, I was a HUGE fan of crafting lengthy and acerbic poison pen letters and did so for more than one past employer. Seeing words flow onto the page– knowing they would eventually be read by my unsuspecting boss - produced what my mother called “un-Christian satisfaction.” It was incredibly cathartic to express exactly what I thought about someone’s professional abilities, especially after whatever unfair conditions or treatment I’d been forced to deal with.

However, these letters rarely brought me the results I wanted in the short term and made for some difficult navigation in the future. Most letters were to owners or managers of restaurants – a world I left to become a massage therapist full-time. However, I got to experience the embarrassment of facing up to what I’d written later when I needed something from the recipients in the future. That was humbling. I also experienced guilt and remorse when I saw how what I wrote could negatively impact others – some of whom were not so forgiving.

Since then, with the assistance of some very good counseling, self-help books, and 12-step materials, I’ve learned that “speaking your truth” and “telling it exactly like it is” is not always the best solution to a problem. Sure, it can feel empowering and it certainly delivers some memorable information to whoever hears, reads, or receives it. But it is important to consider if the message you’re sending today is one you’ll look back on and be proud of? Is your statement something that will help you advance toward the goals you have for your life, relationship, or career?

In the case of my “Dear John” letters to former bosses, I can unequivocally tell you the answer was no. Sure, I was telling those owners truths and facts they probably needed to know about their efficacy in running a business, managing staff, or providing good customer service. However, I did so in such a way that I burned myself and others in the process.

Unfortunately, especially in the world of social media, I see this happening way too often. Just today, I read about someone I’ll call Tom, who got fired from a new job before he ever started work because of a social media post he made. I didn’t see the post which caused the problem, but the way Tom described it, it sounded like he tagged or mentioned the employer, and criticized and shared some kind of upcoming renovation or expansion plan they had.

Tom was shocked he was fired just like that for expressing his opinion about his new employer’s plans -and he was not alone. Tons of folks chimed in and told Tom he had gotten a bad deal, should hire an attorney, and joined in to badmouth the business, which by the way was still mentioned in another of Tom’s social media posts. In that same post, Tom also published his compensation details for the new job – a big no-no in most industries and workplaces. So while everyone else was denigrating the business, all I could think about was the bridge Tom set on fire before he even walked across it.

Imagine you own a business you love and grew out of your blood, sweat, and tears. Times have been tough for the last couple of years but you’ve hung on, are expanding, and are excited to hire Tom as a new employee. He interviewed well, has experience, and seems eager to begin work. But then, before Tom even begins training, you discover he has badmouthed your hot new expansion plans, calling them – and you - stupid. On top of that, Tom has revealed to the world how much his new job pays – proprietary and confidential information – which could damage relationships with other staff members, competitors, and others.

How would YOU feel about or handle that?

If this is the way Tom acted before his first day – in the honeymoon phase of employment – you have to wonder what he’d say or do when he eventually becomes unhappy or disgruntled? Was it better for the business to douse these early sparks and cut their losses now? Or should they have waited to see what waiting behind the smoke when Tom was no longer putting his best foot forward? It’s an individual decision, but in this case, it seems clear someone saw the matches in Tom’s hand and decided to lock the door before everyone went up in flames.

Someone suggested Tom try to talk to the employer to “plead his case” or explain why he felt the way he did. If he really wanted the job, it might have been possible to put out the metaphorical fire with a sincere apology or to repair the damage with some other kind of amends. However, in some situations, everything burns in an instant, and there is nothing left to salvage, which is what happened here.

What Tom or any of us can do is stop the next blaze before it starts. We can consider the potential impact of our words before we pen and post a poorly considered statement or make comments and criticisms that scald and scar. Even when we disagree with someone else’s actions or words, we can aim to build a bridge of communication and understanding instead of building a pyre of insults or insensitivity. Or we can just wait until the impulse to do or say anything passes and continue on our way.

I don’t know Tom well enough to post my thoughts as a direct response to his situation, but perhaps he will read or listen and see himself in my words. Maybe my story will remind you of a time you “got everything off your chest” yet received a similarly unexpected response – and ponder how to replace what got incinerated. Or perhaps, I will inspire someone listening to take a few deep breaths and decide to become one who builds bridges instead of burning them.

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