Nothing hurts like a smack-down. You’ve given your best to an audience, to the court, to your company, to your teenage kid and in response, you get smoked.
As a lawyer of thirty-six years I’ve seen it all. I’ve been roasted in open court by cranky judges, sometimes deserved, mostly not. I’ve brought a client the head of John the Baptist on a platter and been asked, “Where’s the rest?” I’ve walked into many a mediation where the other lawyer wanted to be John Wayne. And well over half the cases I’ve ever handled arose because of broken communication of one sort or another, as a result of which we started in acrimony and went downhill.
As humans, we love to be loved, but it’s not always reciprocated. Often you reach out in peace, and in response you get nuked. Between you and your listener is a smoking crater.
Every case will be different, and what follows is necessarily generic. But these principles apply in most cases:
1. Before anything else, stop and take a very deep breath. Recognize that you have just experienced not one, but two highly emotional events: their rejection and your response to it. Don’t dismiss the importance of this.
2. First, you need to deal with your response to the rejection. So long as you are angry or hurt, you won’t handle this well. There is no chance of recovery without at least one adult in the room.
3. With your own heart and mind now under control, it’s time to analyze the emotional component of the other party’s rejection. For now, forget about their “logic” or lack thereof, but focus on their tone, body language, and what they didn’t say. At this juncture it’s not about content, it’s about their delivery. Keep in mind that most dogs bite out of fear, not aggression, and people are exactly the same.
4. Decide if you want, or need, to try again. Often the smartest thing is just to let it go and move on. But sometimes you can’t, or shouldn’t. Perhaps the other person is a key customer, a supplier, a business colleague, or even a child or a spouse. Courage and discipline are in order, particularly where there is an invested relationship. Decisions like these are for grownups.
5. If you decide not to try again, be smart in how you walk away. Take the high road. Don’t prove you are the jerk they alleged you to be!
6. If you decide to try again, first review in your mind the essentials of effective communication:
7. Now you’re ready to try to re-connect. But, before you start anything, remember that you have a crater problem! You may be ready, but your listener probably is not-- in fact, they’re likely bunkered down waiting for the counterattack. So, before you begin:
8. When you make your initial approach, keep in mind that questions are usually smarter than statements at this point. Don’t rush the conversation-- be prepared to do lots of listening.
9. Be appropriate in your language. Don’t grovel if that’s not warranted (and it rarely is), and don’t couch your reaching-out in defensive, qualified or condescending language. If you don’t have the faintest clue why your listener responded violently, say so, but in a sincere, respectful fashion.
10. Above all else, try to get your listener to open up. When they do, even a little bit, shut up and pay attention. Don’t cut in and confirm all their fears and preconceptions. If you hear them out with respect, you might just fill a crater.
11. Be patient. Filling the crater may be all you can do today. Getting to Point B may have to wait for another time, or it may never happen, but at least the crater has been filled.
12. If you’re lucky and the listener still wants to get to Point B, take the time to assess with them their idea of Point A, be sure you are agreed about the meaning of Point B, and that they are willing to hold your hand all the way to Point B.
And good luck with your next smoking crater!
One last thing-- keep it in perspective. The photograph at the top of this story shows the result of a recent truck bomb in Baghdad. You think your life is hard..........
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.