If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably found yourself in a situation where the phrase “it’s not personal” was uttered.
And, like me, you probably felt pretty awful when it was said to you.
This little phrase tends to come up when we’re facing a disappointment, like not getting the promotion we wanted or a spot on a committee we wanted to join. And even worse, when you’ve been let go from a position you love.
As soon as we hear those words, it’s like being punched in the stomach and we naturally start to shut down. Because the truth is, it IS personal!
Check this out:
Putting all of our efforts into wowing a panel for an interview and finding out we didn’t get hired for whatever reason…well, how can that be anything BUT personal? It’s your job, your passion, and you were probably pretty pumped about the opportunity.
You’ve heard me talk before about the classic non-apology, “I’m sorry you feel that way” and how we often use it as a knee-jerk reaction. We do it because we think it will make the other person feel better in the moment, but we all know that for an apology to be heartfelt it doesn’t include completely invalidating the hurt party’s feelings.
If anything, the non-apology actually undermines the trust and can damage the relationship.
My take is that “it’s not personal” falls into the same category. It’s a throwaway phrase that is generally said without any thoughts to how the person on the receiving end is actually feeling at the moment.
The thing is…saying “it’s not personal” immediately MAKES it personal once the words are out. So why do people use that phrase when it seems pretty clear that it’s not helpful?
Usually, because they are protecting themselves. Nobody wants to be seen as the “bad guy” when they have to deliver potentially unpleasant news. But it does the opposite of what they are hoping. Instead of smoothing things over it leaves a bad feeling about the interaction and any positive messages that you try and deliver after those words are out will likely fall on deaf ears.
Alternatives to It’s Not Personal
When it’s time to tell someone they didn’t get the promotion or that invite they were hoping for, it’s best to avoid the phrase entirely. As much as your brain tells you to “reassure” them it’s not personal, it’s not helpful or productive to the conversation at hand.
When having to have a difficult conversation with someone where you know they will be disappointed, it’s always best to stick to the facts. By being honest and straightforward, you’re being real with them, which actually helps solidify trust.
Let them know the outcome, be compassionate, and allow them to have their moment of disappointment.
Is it going to be awkward? Maybe. But wouldn’t you rather have an honest and genuine moment where the person gets the opportunity to process instead of them going on the defensive?
People want to feel valued and like our feelings matter to others. The things we do every day…our jobs, our friends, our LIVES…it’s ALL personal.
So the next time you’re tempted to tell someone something is not personal to make it less uncomfortable for you, stifle that urge.
Take a breath, deliver your message and hold the space.