Please, Sorry, Thanks
There You Are
It’s not about you.
—Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life
Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother, oncedined with two of Britain’s prime ministers on back-to-back evenings. When asked her impression of each, she said of William Gladstone, “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England.” After dining with Benjamin Disraeli? “I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.”
William Gladstone was good at projecting his charismatic personality, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. We naturally want to put our best foot forward. Benjamin Disraeli was good at drawing water out of other people’s wells. He brought the best out of others. The difference? Gladstone was self-focused, while Disraeli was others-focused. “Talk to people about themselves,” said Disraeli, “and they will listen for hours.”
My spiritual father, Dick Foth, says there are two kinds of people in the world. The first kind of person walks into a room and internally announces,Here I am. They are pretty impressed with themselves. Their ego barely fits through the door. It’s all about me, myself, and I. The second kind of person? They walk into a room and internally announce,There you are. They check their ego at the door. It’s all about everyone else. Their objective is adding value.
Which one are you?
Are you a here I am person?
Or are you a there you are person?
People who try to impress others are unimpressive. What’s really impressive is someone who isn’t trying to impress anyone at all. In the same vein, the most interesting people are those who take a genuine interest in others. They ask lots of questions, and they follow up with “Tell me more!”
The famous apologist Francis Schaeffer said, “If I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first 55 minutes asking questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last 5 minutes I will share something of the truth.” Schaeffer understood the virtue of listening. His wife, Edith, described him as having a ministry of conversation.
Did you know that Teddy Roosevelt read, on average, a book a day? And that was while serving as president. How did he do it? For starters, he wasn’t watching TV or surfing social media! There were far fewer distractions a century ago, but I don’t think he’d read any less if he were alive today. Why? Roosevelt had a holy curiosity about all of God’s creation, and reading was his way of researching. Roosevelt prepared for guests, prepared for conversations, by doing his homework. What if we approached relationships, approached conversations, that way? We’d talk about the weather a whole lot less!
Are you living at a conversational pace? And when you have a conversation, do you do more talking or listening? I’ve had people fly across the country to spend an hour with me, and I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Trust me—I love hearing people’s stories. But I was left wondering why they wanted to talk to me. I guess they literally wanted to talk!
Here’s a thought: God gave us two ears and one mouth—use them in that proportion! What does that have to do withplease? Please, like listening, is others-focused. It’s asking for permission, which empowers the other party. It puts them in the captain’s chair.
Author and professor Adam Grant made a distinction between givers and takers. Takers have a scarcity mindset. They tend to be self-focused:Here I am. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and their primary interest is self-interest. Givers have an abundance mindset—what goes around comes around. Their objective is adding value to others: There you are.
Givers and takers have diametrically opposed metrics of success. For a taker, whoever has the most toys at the end of the game wins. It’s all about getting what’s theirs. A giver doesn’t just love to give; they live to give. In the words of martyred missionary Jim Elliot, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
My friend Brad Formsma wrote I Like Giving. It’s the gold standard when it comes to generosity. It’s all about inspiring people to be generous with their thoughts, words, money, time, attention, belongings, and influence. It was Brad who introduced me to Stanley Tam, the founder of the United States Plastic Corporation. When I met Stanley, he was well into his nineties and had given more than $120 million to kingdom causes. Over dinner he said something I’ll never forget: “God’s shovel is bigger than ours.” In other words, you can’t outgive God. Then he said something else that was simple yet profound: “God can’t reward Abraham yet, because his seed is still multiplying.”
What if we viewed words the way we view money?
What if we saw our words as gifts?
What if we were generous with life-giving words?
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” Jesus said, “you did for me.” This is the transitive property applied to generosity. You can’t bless others without blessing God. Life-giving words are the gift that keeps on giving.
How do you know whether you’re a giver or a taker? Your itemized deductions for charitable giving are a pretty good indicator, but the most significant clue may be pronouns. Yes, pronouns.
Pronouns—and other function words like articles andprepositions—“account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of your vocabulary but make up almost 60 percent of the words you use.” Pronouns are little words, but they have subtle power. “Since takers tend to be self-absorbed,” said Adam Grant, “they’re more likely to use first-person singular pronouns like I, me, mine, my, and myself—versus first-person plural pronouns likewe, us, our, ours, and ourselves.” In a study of CEOs who were extreme takers, 39 percent of their first-person pronouns were singular.
There is a fascinating branch of psychology that analyzes word usage to gain psychological insight. Professor James Pennebaker created a software program called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, and he has used it to analyze everything from song lyrics to terrorist correspondence. The FBI asked Pennebaker to study al-Qaeda’s communications—letters, videos, interviews. He discovered that Osama bin Laden’s use of personal pronouns likeI, me, and mine stayed close to baseline over time. But he saw a dramatic spike in the use of those words by bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. “This dramatic increase,” said Pennebaker, “suggests greater insecurity, feelings of threat, and perhaps a shift in his relationship with bin Laden.”
In the world of politics, there are two primary ways to rally the troops. First, you can focus on acommon enemy and demonize those who dare disagree with you. This approach is incredibly effective if your goal is inciting negative emotions such as fear, hate, and anger. It may win some votes, but it further divides people intome versus you. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls it pathological dualism—it prejudges people as “unimpeachably good” and “irredeemably bad.” The reality? “The line dividing good and evil,” said Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “cuts through the heart of every human being.” The common enemy approach is a zero-sum game.
The second way is to celebrate our common humanity—the image of God in me greets the image of God in you. It levels the playing field by humanizing one another. Few people were more effective than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who appealed to common values, common ideals, and common sense. “Hate cannot drive out hate,” said Dr. King, “only love can do that.” What is your bent—common enemy orcommon humanity?
These two approaches lead to very different destinations, and pronouns are where the road divides. Instead ofme versus you, a common-identity approach turns me into we.
As a leader, I pay close attention to pronouns. If I’m using a lot of first-person singular pronouns, it may indicate that I’m leading from a place of insecurity. I’m too focused on protecting my ego. I want more credit than I deserve. We flip that script by using plural pronouns that make it about we, not me. “It is amazing what you can accomplish,” said President Harry Truman, “if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
When testosterone levels go up, our use of social pronouns—we, us, they, them—goes down. Why? We become more task-oriented and less relationship-oriented, which often means that relationships are sacrificed for the sake of the goal. It’s my way or the highway. Get on the bus or get run over by it.
Are you a me person?
Or are you a we person?
Self-centered leaders take the credit and shift the blame.
Others-focused leaders give the credit and take the blame.