I recently went on a trip to Florida and drove across Alligator Alley from Miami to Naples. I am fascinated by alligators and hoped to see one lazing on the side of the road with a big smile, waiting for me. Instead, all I saw was highway and wire fences keeping the alligators away from the road and the humans away from the alligators.

A few weeks ago, I spoke at a convention in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I scheduled a swamp tour hoping to see an alligator. Instead, I saw beautiful forest areas, snakes, birds, turtles…but no alligators. They were sleeping or taking a vacation in South Florida!

Imagine my surprise when I walked into the opening reception of the convention and saw a man holding a baby alligator. OH MY, my dream was coming true, and I made a beeline over to the little fella. The owner asked if I would like to hold Louis, the baby alligator? Absolutely! I scooped him up, petted him, and noticed the band around his mouth. The owner said it was necessary as Louis, the baby alligator, snaps, and the restraint will keep his mouth shut. I said, “We should have those for people!” The man laughed and said, “You are absolutely right!”

Over the next few days, I thought about Louis and his restraint. I remembered a conversation I had with in my early days of leadership that impacted and shifted my perspective on my approach and communication. My boss asked, “Have you ever experienced a time when you responded to a comment and 24 hours later you wished you had not, or you gained insight that changed your perspective?” I replied, “Yes.” He asked, “How did that make you feel?” I shook my head and said, “I felt terrible. I judged incorrectly and wished that I could take back the words that I said in the moment.” He said, “Once the words are out of your mouth, you can never take them back. You can apologize and you may be forgiven but the other person will likely never forget.” I asked, “What do you recommend I do differently?” He laughed and said, “Imagine you are carrying a role of duct tape with you always. When faced with a highly charged situation, envision tearing a piece of that duct tape and placing it over your mouth! This forces you to use restraint and allows time to consider feelings, gather information, and respond with compassion. This action takes courage and strength as the natural tendency is to immediately respond.”

I never carried a role of duct tape, instead I carried the lesson and wise words.

When faced with an emotionally charged situation, take a step back to ensure you have all the information to make an informed and compassionate decision. One of the questions that I ask to gain context and understand intent is, “What lead you to this decision or outcome?”  Instead of “jumping to a conclusion” and potentially alienating the other person, this approach has resulted in stronger relationships and solutions with little adverse impact or liability to the organization. In fact, after hearing the answer to the question I have thought, “if faced with the same situation, I would come to a similar conclusion and decision.”

In today’s employment market, candidates and employees want to work in an environment that treats them with respect and is concerned about their wellness and wholeness. People have choices. We all experience feelings of frustration and judgement. The feelings may not “go away,” but the verbal responses to them can be tempered. A calm and respectful interaction leads to enhanced productivity, creativity, and engagement.

A leader must share this lesson with their managers and employees. We all could learn from Louie the alligator, as restraint prevents a bite or attack.

When restraint and courtesy are added to strength, the latter becomes irresistible. Mahatma Gandhi