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Things to Think About - When you are the anvil, hold you still. But, when you are the hammer, strike your fill

By Pepper de Callier 

“When you are the anvil, hold you still.  But, when you are the hammer, strike your fill.”
George Herbert

George Herbert was a 17th century Welsh poet and he would definitely be on the invitation list for my fantasy dinner with historical figures.  In more than 50 years of collecting quotes, this is undoubtedly one of my favorites.  I like it because of its simplicity, but more,  because it addresses one of the biggest problems people experience when interacting with others—timing.  Knowing when to say or do something, is often much more important than what you say or do, especially if your goal is effective communication.

Let’s see if we can unlock the wisdom in this little gem. Close your eyes for a moment and picture yourself in a metalworker’s atelier.  Two of the most important tools you’ll see are an anvil and a hammer. The metalworker places a piece of metal on the anvil and then hits the metal, using the anvil to “influence” its shape, or outcome.  Now, here’s how it applies to interacting and communicating with others.  Let’s say that I am trying to influence your thinking about something and you know that is the reason for my coming to see you.  My approach is one of hitting you with all the facts, all the logic, all the really sensible reasons to support my idea—in other words, I’m the hammer.

But, you have a very good argument against my idea that you want to present—you want to be the hammer.  Unless someone is willing to be the anvil, to be “still” and listen, there will not be much communication taking place, to be sure. 

What would happen if, instead, I, seeing that you really wanted a shot at being the hammer, decided to play the part of the anvil and listen to you—to actively listen while you hammered away?  If I can use my sense of timing by delaying gratification (my need to speak) by letting you speak and say your piece, I am showing respect for you and your thoughts.  I am also setting the stage for you to reciprocate, or let me be the hammer while you play the part of the anvil.  This is the foundation for mutual respect, meaningful dialogue, and an environment with no distracting negative emotions that can lead to undesirable outcomes.  Think about your last interaction.  Were you playing one role to excess, say the hammer?  Now, before your next interaction, think about the other party, think about their needs, and ask yourself as you go through the interaction what role the other person needs to play.  Do they need to be the hammer at this moment, in order to make a point?  Can you delay gratification—hone your sense of timing—and play the anvil for a while in order to establish a productive dialogue?

Give it a try.  It’s a wonderful way to display maturity, respect, and the desire to create win-win dialogues.

Till next time…

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at