Last week a former colleague texted me a vague question. I read it and immediately interpreted it as hostile, rude, mean, aggressive, foul, ill-timed, and downright horrific.
“How dare he?” I said, staring at my phone so hard I’m truly surprised it didn’t burst into flames. I fumed all day—only taking breaks to have fights with him in my head (and as anyone who has this habit knows, head fights are simultaneously rewarding because you always win, and also scary because you get so deep into them).
As the day came to a close, I looked at the text again and had a novel thought: “What if I’m reading this wrong and he meant it the other way.” The other way, of course, being a genuine question that wasn’t mean to be a snide remark on my life choices.
I gave him the benefit of the doubt and followed up like a level-headed person would with the response, “What do you mean?” Long story short: He did intend it as a genuine question, and I was reminded for the umpteenth time in my life that it’s almost always a better use of your time to address an issue directly, rather than stressing out about it.
In fact, there are three specific times when you should always speak up before you drive yourself crazy running through it in your head:
1. When You Make a Mistake
No one feels good about making mistakes. I’ve never received a reader email about a typo in an article and thought to myself, Wahoo Jenni, you’ve done it again! But part of being alive is messing up occasionally.
And part of being an adult is coming clean to the relevant parties as soon as you do. That means that rather than putting yourself through nightmarish fantasies that all end with you getting fired, say something.
Yes, people might be upset. And yes, this might not look great for you. But there’s no situation in which stressing out internally about it for weeks, only for it to come out to higher-ups that you’ve been aware about this issue for a long time, will work out any better in your favor.
The sooner you confront the situation head-on (with proposed solutions or fixes, of course), the faster you’ll be able to focus on what matters—and less on that scenario you’ve cooked up in your head about all your co-workers talking behind your back when you’re let go.
2. When Someone Else Keeps Making the Same Mistake
Is there someone in your office who pronounces your name incorrectly when introducing you to clients? How about a teammate who keeps using the wrong format to submit her projects, creating unnecessary work for you? Or, maybe there’s a person in your desk vicinity who douses herself in pungent perfume at exactly 3 PM each day.
We’ve all had that colleague whose actions—however small—drive us up the wall. We’ve also all spent more time grumbling to ourselves about the issue than actually addressing the situation. And that always makes sense at first—it’s never easy to tell someone that he or she’s in the wrong, especially when the issue feels minor.
But working off the assumption that your co-worker’s not out to personally destroy you, she will be happy to get the feedback so that she can avoid irritating people in the future (OK, maybe not in that very moment, but definitely in the long run if you give it constructively).
3. When the Company’s Making a Mistake
At almost any company you ever work at, you will come across outdated ideas and processes. They may not necessarily be bad, but they could probably use a little freshening up, if not a total makeover. And most people will recognize that—but only in their heads.
So, you end up with a room full of people who all think the Tuesday meeting’s pointless, but no one says anything aloud and you spend every Tuesday together, inching ever closer to death. Meanwhile, in your brain, the fix is the most obvious. If your team would just get on board, everything would be 110% better.
The next time you catch yourself growing annoyed at inefficiencies or increasingly confused as to why something’s done the way it is, speak up. Odds are you’re not the only person thinking it. But by being the one who brings it up and offers an awesome solution, you’re the all-star who gets the reputation for being an innovative genius. (Plus, you avoid that moment when someone else says what’ve you been thinking for a while and you’re forced to watch him get all the accolades.)
If I’d received my former colleague’s text and immediately responded with, “What do you mean?” I would’ve saved myself hours of unnecessary stress. I might not have liked the answer, but at least I could’ve had some kind of resolution. And that’s the case with all three of the situations above. I can’t promise the outcome will work out in your favor. But I can pretty much guarantee that you’re not going to get any closer to a good outcome by running through it again and again in your head.
Photo of person thinking courtesy of Image Source/Getty Images.
Jenni Maier is the Editor-in-Chief of The Muse. She wrote her first book at the age of five. While it didn't quite take off, she's continued to write and edit whenever possible. She feels very lucky to have a career that allows her to do just that. Her work's been featured in Fast Company, TIME , Inc., her mother's Facebook statuses, and more. When she's not Musing and daydreaming about being a dog owner, she's either working through her Netflix queue or baking. Or, ideally, a combination of both. Say hi on Twitter.More from this Author