Staying On the High Ground Is Hard, But It’s Always the Right Choice.


At one time, I probably thought the phrase “high ground” meant only a land mass. Today I understand the words much differently in relationships with people.

“Stay on the high ground” is advice I received when I was involved in a difficult situation. I have not always listened to that advice. At one time, instead of staying on the high ground, my tendency was to look for faults in others. Instead of lifting myself up, I put others down. My insecurity and fear drove me to make poor decisions. I own that. Today, through great mentors, therapy, and work on myself, I am better at staying on the high ground. Do I slip at times? Yes. However, it is the exception, not the rule.

Changing habits is hard. A habit is a regular tendency or practice that is hard to give up. I use the word “rewire” in connection with changing or adjusting one’s pattern of thinking and doing. To rewire means to take a fresh look at what the current action is achieving. If it is working, don’t change it. If it is not, then it’s time to rewire.

We see it all around us: When people disagree or are unhappy with someone else, their first action is to attack the person. This reminds me of research that, sadly, shows how negative ads work, at least for a short time. Not staying on the high ground by pointing out fault in others may provide a jolt of short-term adrenaline.

The subject of staying on the high ground came to me recently based on a few experiences. Some years back, a friend called me. He was someone I had a close relationship with; one could say I was a mentor. It turned out he was devastated because his wife had told him she was ending the marriage. He was very angry, bitter, resentful, and full of thoughts of revenge. During the call, I shared with him advice I often hear in the rooms of recovery.

It is not unusual for people who are recovering from addiction to face serious consequences. Often this includes the loss of family. While it’s true that these people have done much to cause the situation, their emotions are often raw. So, when my friend called me that day, I shared with him what is shared in the rooms of recovery: I asked him if he loved his children. He said, “more than anything.” I asked him what he would do for them. Again, he said he would do anything. I then suggested that no matter what occurred, he treat their mother with respect—no matter what she said or did. Yes, there were rough patches. However, for the most part, he stayed on the high ground.

Now, fast forward two decades. I was invited to a party to celebrate the engagement of this same man’s son. During the celebration, my friend came up to me and thanked me for the “high ground” advice from 20 years ago. He said that staying on the high ground had set a good example for his children. His ex-wife was at the celebration, as was her extended family. Lots of healing has taken place over the past two decades.

Staying on the high ground can be very hard. I was with someone who had been let go by his employer. It was termed “a reduction in force.” He had been with the company a long time. As we discussed his departure, I saw him pause, then look at me and say he was grateful for the many years he worked there. He then said he is excited about what comes next. Knowing him well, I could see the pause was that fork in the road. He was about to go negative but stopped himself and stayed on the high ground.

It is my rule that in an interview if the applicant goes negative on their current or past employer or leader, they are a “do not hire.” The issues they have in the last or current job will likely be repeated in the next job. Even if a person is unhappy, there are more effective ways to answer questions than to put the employer or supervisor down.

Staying on the high ground does not mean a person should not correct things that aren’t accurate. It does mean to do so without attacking the person. When D.C. Reeves shared with me that he was going to run for mayor of Pensacola, he said he was not going to do attack ads. He was going to stay on the high ground. My thought was, That’s great; however, most people running for office say that at first and then find it hard to do. As the campaign was taking place, it was apparent D.C. was sticking to his goal. As I watched a debate, one of the candidates for the mayor spot went low. Here was the test. To D.C.’s credit, he stayed on the high ground. I think it may have worked against the candidate to go negative, as D.C. won the election by a wide margin.

One challenge is that other people will often reinforce not staying on the high ground. We need to also have in our lives people we trust enough to provide advice. They can help us make the right choices.

A few suggestions:

  1. In circumstances where you may not want to stay on the high ground, do your best to pause. I wish all our devices had a standard pause button that we could not override, one that forced us to pause. Often when we relook at what we wrote when troubled, we realize if we could have a do-over, we would not send what we wrote at all, or that what we said and sent would be very different.
  2. Part of our pause may be to call someone. A good example is my friend who called me after his wife shared she had filed for divorce. He was very angry, and his calling me bought time between what he wanted to do and what he did. I received an email from someone who asked me what I thought of a message they had already sent. Overall, it was good till the last paragraph. They went low at the end, moving to personalities versus principles. It took away from the overall impact. Often it is best to run a message by someone before you send it.
  3. Practice. There are certain situations in which the potential for a conversation’s moving low versus high is great. An example is sharing with someone news they likely will not want to hear. Maybe they are being let go from a job, or the offer they put in on a house is being rejected. In these situations, emotions can run high. Be prepared for this. Practice with someone you trust. The key is realizing that just because the other party goes low, you don’t have to.
  4. As stated earlier, not staying on the high ground could be a habit. Gossip is one example. Gossip is low-ground behavior. Pointing out issues and troubles others are dealing with can subconsciously create a feeling of superiority in the gossiper. If you find yourself not being on the high ground, make a course correction. Apologize for what you said or wrote.

Let’s do our best to take the high road, even when it is hard. I have never met someone who regretted staying on the high ground. I have met people—and I include myself in this—who have regrets when they did not take the high ground.

We are all works in progress. Let’s forgive others when they misstep, and let’s also forgive ourselves…and strive to do better in the future.

Quint Studer
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Quint Studer’s Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive is filled with tips, tactics, and need-to-know insights. His book The Calling: Why Healthcare Is So Special is aimed at helping healthcare professionals keep their sense of passion and purpose high. In Sundays with Quint, he shares a selection of his popular leadership columns for leaders, employees, and business owners in all industries. His latest book, Rewiring Excellence: Hardwired to Rewired, provides tools and techniques that are doable and that help employees and physicians experience joy in their work as well as enhance patients’ and families’ healthcare experiences.

Quint is the cofounder of Healthcare Plus Solutions Group, a consulting firm that specializes in delivering customized solutions to diagnose and treat healthcare organizations’ most urgent pain points.