The Jury is Out!

President Obama has made a historic choice for filling the next seat on the US Supreme Court with Justice Sonya Sotamayor. Justice Sotamayor has a compelling life story which is now familiar to many of us- daughter of Puerto Rican parents who moved to New York, lived in a housing project in a rough neighborhood, attended Princeton on a scholarship and was Phi Beta Kappa at Yale Law School. She was even put on the bench by both Republican and Democratic administrations!

While many applaud her inspiring personal and professional journey, she is now in a different ball game and her previous accomplishments are not the only criteria for consideration. The Senate Judiciary Committee is deep into the investigative phase to determine whether she is capable of being a Supreme Court Justice and there’s lots of controversy about that. One of the most publicized controversies pertains to a statement she made about how a wise Latino woman with the richness of her experience would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life. You can bet that she will be asked about this kind of statement in her confirmation hearings.

While we wait to hear her response, we can all learn something from this particular experience. When you are a visible leader, your words can be very memorable and can be used to your advantage or, in some cases, can come back to haunt you. I address this in the chapter called Making Your Words Count, in my first book, It’s Not A Glass Ceiling, It’s A Sticky Floor.

Here are two specific guidelines to consider for Making Your Words Count:

  1. Be intentional and aware of what you say and how you say it. As a leader, people are watching and observing you constantly to better understand your views, determine your level of substance and judge how you “come off” as a person. I always ask people to think about what they are going to say by asking themselves if they would want to see it as the front page headline in their local newspaper. 
  2. When questioned about what you may have said:
    • Don’t be defensive
    • Understand why someone is asking before you respond
    • Try to truly understand what they are questioning in terms of what you said
    • Don’t let your response cause you more problems than your original statement

Here are a few other quick tips for Making Your Words Count:

  1. Understand your audience- know what they want (and don’t want) to hear as well as how much detail they require at that time.
  2. Make your contribution relevant by saying it at the right time, with the right message, to the right people.
  3. Listen first and speak second- you can learn a lot in the first 90 seconds of a dialogue if you are not the one speaking.
  4. Do your homework! Great communication is about being prepared to say what you are going to say and being able to answer reasonable questions about it.

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