Just Say ‘Thank You’


August 16, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

How much do we learn proving that we are right? Nothing.

How much do we learn proving that other people are wrong? Nothing.

How much of our lives have been wasted on these two pursuits? Far too much.

Buddha taught his students to do what he suggested only if it made sense in the context of their own lives. In other words, if it works for you, do it. If it doesn’t work for you, just let it go.

Our natural tendency when others give suggestions we don’t agree with is to immediately become defensive and prove they are wrong. Our natural tendency when others give suggestions we do agree with is to point out that we “already knew that,” implying that the suggestion is unnecessary.

The next time someone gives you an idea or counsel, listen without judgment, try to find value in what you’re hearing, and say: “Thank you” (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/16/07, “It’s Always the Right Time to Say Thanks”).

This sage advice is easy to understand yet hard to practice. I’ll give you an example from my life when I totally blew it in terms of practicing what I teach. My guess is that when you read my story, you’ll agree that what I did was not only stupid, it was dangerous. I’ll also predict that you’ve done the same stupid thing that I did – perhaps even on multiple occasions.

Combative Mood

In my work I travel constantly. On American Airlines alone, I have more than 9 million frequent-flier miles. I always put off going to the airport until the last second. The time I really screwed up I was racing to the San Diego airport to catch a flight to New York. My wife, Lyda, was sitting next to me in the front seat. My kids, Bryan and Kelly, were in the back. I was frantically racing along and not paying much attention. Lyda cried out: “Look out! There is a red light up ahead.”

Being a trained behavioral science professional – who teaches others the value of encouraging input – I naturally screamed at her: “I know there is a red light up ahead! Don’t you think I can see? I drive as well as you can.”

When we arrived at the airport, Lyda, a licensed clinical psychologist with a PhD, abandoned her usual farewell ministrations for some reason. Not only did she fail to kiss me good-bye, she didn’t even speak to me. As she walked around the car, slid behind the wheel, and drove off, both kids gave me that my-dad-is-an-idiot look.

“Hmm,” I pondered, “I wonder why she seems mad at me?”

Cost-Benefit Analysis

During the six-hour flight to New York, I did a cost-benefit analysis. I asked myself: “What was the cost of just listening when Lyda called out the warning? Zero.” I then reasoned: “What was the potential benefit? What could have been saved?” Several potential benefits came to mind, including her life, my life, the lives of our children, and the lives of other people.

When someone gives us something that has a huge potential benefit – and costs us absolutely nothing – what should we say to such a fine person? “Thank you!”

I landed in New York feeling lonely, guilty, and ashamed of myself. I immediately called Lyda and told her my cost-benefit story. I assured her: “The next time you help me with my driving, I am just going to say, ‘Thank you.'”

“Sure you will,” she said with a laugh (sarcasm free of charge). For some reason, she seemed to doubt that I had undergone a true religious conversion.

“Just you wait. I am going to do better,” I continued.

“We’ll see,” she replied.

Another Airport Run

A few months passed, and I had long forgotten the incident. Again, I was racing off to the airport, not paying attention, when Lyda cried out: “Look out for the red light!”

My face turned crimson, I started breathing hard, I grimaced – and then yelled: “Thank you!”

I’m a long way from perfect, but I’m getting better. My suggestion is that you get in the habit of asking the important people in your life how you can do things better. And be ready for an answer. Some people may tell you things like “Look out for the red light,” or “You’re going too fast around the corner.”

When this happens, take a deep breath. Ask yourself: “What is the cost of listening to this?” Remember that there is possibly some potential benefit. Then just say: “Thank you.”