(MoneyWatch) Around the time of the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent bank bailouts, professor and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb was asked what he thought of folks who went on the record saying they'd never tolerate that sort of thing again. He said, "When people say [that], you know they will."
I remember thinking at the time that he's right. He's right that we'll almost certainly live to see more bubbles and bailouts. More importantly, he's right in general. I've always thought that "never say never" is a pretty good rule to live by. That way you'll never end up eating your words.
Anyway, it got me thinking about how important it is, in business and in life, to understand what people really mean when they say something. In my experience, critical information is often hidden behind a cloak of bravado, anger, fear, defensiveness, exaggeration, politeness or political correctness.
Some people try to sound smart, sugarcoat the truth, or tell their superiors what they want to hear in order to cover up mistakes or further their careers. Others just plain lie. Lots of us lie to ourselves. Why? I'm no shrink, but I think it has something to do with compartmentalization -- a defense mechanism that keeps you from freaking out.
In any case, there's an art or a skill to reading between the lines of what people say and really understanding what they mean. It'll give you an advantage in business and in your career. On the flip side, excuses for not saying what you mean or spinning the truth are just that, excuses. And none of them are justifiable in my book.
Here are some examples of the subliminal meaning behind what you and others say. Some are possible meanings while others are more likely. You can best judge in conversational context, of course.
"Nobody's getting a raise this year."
Meaning: "You're lucky to have a job."
"I love my job."
Meaning: "I need my job."
"You do good work."
Meaning: "Who are you again?"
"I'm 99 percent sure."
Meaning: "I have no idea."
"Sorry, I've got to take this call."
Meaning: "I'm self-important and have no respect for your time."
"Not to belabor the point, ..."
Meaning: "To belabor the point, ..."
"I don't mean to be a jerk, but ..."
Meaning: "I'm being a jerk, I know it, and I mean it."
"My boss is a little high-strung."
Meaning: "My boss is a raving lunatic."
"With all due respect, ..."
Meaning: "I have no respect for you."
"I'm not sure I understand what you're saying."
Meaning: "I'm sure I don't like what you're saying."
"We're reorganizing to better align ourselves with changing market conditions."
Meaning: "We're in big trouble and we're laying off a boatload of people."
"We see strong market demand for our new product."
Meaning: "We got two phone calls and one was a wrong number."
"I came in early today."
Meaning: "I'm leaving early today."
"We're right on schedule."
Meaning: "If we get it done on time it'll be a miracle."
"I left after 8 last night."
Meaning: "I left at 6 last night but there were no witnesses."
"The vacation was great, but I was ready to come back."
Meaning: "They had to drag me off the island kicking and screaming."
"He left the company to pursue other opportunities."
Meaning: "He got canned."
"She left the company to spend more time with her family."
Meaning: "She got fed up and quit."
"I'll really miss working here."
Meaning: "I can't wait to get out of here."
The best executives and business leaders I've known over the years speak plainly and directly. You'll go further in your career if you say what you mean, mean what you say, and learn to read between the lines when others speak. That's the straight truth.
Image courtesy of Flickr user NEXT Berlin