In honor of Father’s Day this past Sunday, I’d like to share some insights about relationships, writing, and communication from my mentor and father, Robert S. Gruhn. Dad was an attorney practicing labor law for more than 50 years in addition to volunteering legal advice and services to a variety of public agencies and museums around the Puget Sound. He was an old-school attorney, focused on helping his clients preserve relationships and reputation.
Dad had three rules he lived by and that he taught his children and clients:
- Never write anything you wouldn’t want read back to you in court. This is sound advice in any context, particularly in this age of rapid email and social media that gives little time for contemplation and the development of a cogent, well-thought-out line of reasoning. We should all think before we hit send, avoid use of the “reply all” button, and write each email or post as if our words could come back to us in some form, some day.
In fact, my Dad took this “rule” a bit further in reminding us that there was one reader worse than any court of law, and that was my mother. He reminded me never to write anything I wouldn’t want my mother to read. Oddly, this was not because of the obvious maternal consternation over content, but because my mother is a linguist. As a result, I am more careful than most to proofread carefully, and to avoid mistakes in grammar and punctuation.
- Never do or say anything that might welcome the unwanted attention of the Coroner. This piece of advice caused me no small amount of confusion when younger, but as I age, it makes perfect sense. Dad was trying to tell me to be aware of the repercussions of my behavior, even behavior that didn’t seem all that dangerous at the time. He wanted me to think before I act, not to make me afraid of risk, but rather to consider the consequences and make sure I was willing to pay the price for my actions. Again, sound advice. What if in business, leaders considered both the short and long-term consequences, for their organizations and employees, of the actions they take or recommend?
We should all take the long view, understanding how our corporate actions impact the world around us, including employees, clients, and stakeholders. We should consider the risks, weigh them carefully, and then act with clear knowledge of risks, costs, and benefits. In other words, we should “own” our decisions and be responsible for our actions.
- Always preserve the relationship because in the end, that’s all that matters. Dad was known as a ‘gentleman lawyer’, one who wisely advocated communication over litigation. And, because he chose his battles wisely, when he did have to go to court, he rarely lost. Over the years, I’ve learned that my Dad was right; relationships matter, and we can win more in business through talking and negotiating than we can through steadfastly arguing for our own point of view.
Dad taught me how to look at conflict from different perspectives; he believed that everyone has a point of view and everyone deserves to be heard, no matter how strange or unconventional their perspectives seem at the time. As a partnering and facilitation consultant, I’ve found this to be particularly true: team members come to projects with a broad range of perspectives and needs. If we take the time to listen and seek to build understanding of real needs and expectations, we can avoid conflicts and build stronger, more positive relationships across the duration of any project.
I’m a lucky daughter. Though Dad passed away eight years ago, I get to remember him through his wise words every day (and through the 22 boxes of law books still in my garage). By passing his advice on to teams around the Country, I’m helping him continue his goals of preserving relationships, building stronger teams, and keeping people out of the courtroom by negotiating in the boardroom.