Under attack

My blog always feels like a great place to share my experiences as a coach. This week I faced quite a challenge that I would like to share with you.

I was contacted by a general manager who was being attacked. A few years ago, he made a mistake that had affected his previous company, and now a board member used his history to open fire and destabilize his credibility in his function today. He was asked, via an e-mail, to talk about it in the next board meeting.

He could not deny what was being said about him, because unfortunately the story was true. Also, it was not the first time that the story popped up, it had been discussed before, and it was very bad timing to have it pop up again.

Now what were his options? Instinctively we feel that we have to defend or explain ourselves when under attack. The problem with ‘defending’ or ‘explaining’ is that we put ‘the story in the center of the discussion’, where actually we want it to go away as quickly as possible. By explaining, we make it ‘relevant’ again. And that is exactly the strategy of our ‘opponent’. They use ‘the story’ as a diversion, as a method to move the center of gravity. However, today, the story is not relevant.

After a long conversation, we decided together to just say ‘it’s true’ and nothing more. No ‘but’, no ‘however’. Just ‘it’s true’. Not: ‘we all make mistakes’. Not: ‘have you never done anything wrong?’. Just ‘it’s true’.

It would be a shame, to stop after that. He would have the full attention of the board and we decided to use that, to seize the moment and underline his vision for the future. We thought about a good ‘bridging sentence’ for a long time and eventually he came up with: ‘Now that I do have your full attention, I would like to talk about the future of this company, that still lies in our hands, instead of the past that cannot be changed.’

These are moments, where my coaching heart skips a few beats. How can you know this will have the desired effect? You just do not know what happens, until you try it. It’s impossible to test-drive these situations. There is no guarantee for success.

Last evening he sent me the following e-mail after his presentation.

“Peggy, I said it. ‘It’s true’. Followed by the three seconds of silence, as you recommended. The three seconds lasted almost a lifetime. Then I continued with our bridge. You were right about having everybody’s fullest attention. And it worked. I said what I had to say, and the discussion afterwards was indeed about my vision of the new launch and not the story from the past. We took a risk, and it worked. Thank you for brainstorming with me”.

After that I was able to breathe out again. What I have learned from his experience?

Don’t be lead by somebody else’s political strategy. Don’t let thém decide what you will talk about. Dare to admit and move on. Stay close to who YOU are and people will stay close to you as well.

Does it mean this will always work? Honestly, I have no idea! However, answering a question just because it was asked, gives too much power to the questioner. You don’t have to follow their lead.

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