There we sat, comfortably private in adjoining massive hotel foyer arm chairs, participants in a business conference. My companion: A Senior Executive Vice President and Group Executive, someone I see one or two times a year at similar meetings or in her home city. Her company is one of our clients. I’d invited her to sit for a few minutes to share some perspective of her priorities and our work in her organization. I’d prepared three questions to ask her.
As we settled into our chairs, we made some small talk about how pretty the day was, how well the conference was going and, as we looked out the window at the brightly colored hotel landscaping, how glad we were to be in such a beautiful location. We paused for a moment, soaking in the scenery.
Then, she, like a baseball pitcher making a sudden pick-off move to first base, sharply turned her gaze from the outside sunshine to me, looked me dead in the eye, and asked, in a flat tone, “So, what’s new?”
Never mind my three questions; her sudden shift caught me “leaning the wrong way,” as baseball people say. My weight was on the wrong foot. I hadn’t anticipated that question. My mind went blank. I swallowed hard. Just in that instant, I wasn’t ready.
But, just for an instant.
I “dove for the bag,” sharing thoughts about two new, emerging industry trends.
She listened, quietly, her eyes locked on me. She agreed with some of my points, pushed back on some others, and, after we’d talked about those for a bit, there was a moment of silence. She looked out the window.
I took a breath to ask my first question about her priorities for the upcoming year.
Sensing that, I think, and without diverting her gaze from outside, she asked, “Who are you seeing that’s doing this (her business) well… and what are they doing?”
This is not an unexpected question. Almost every client I meet asks me this question. I have specific answers to this question. Yet, again, her timing and sharp delivery of the question caught me off guard.
I could see how this was going to go. She would ask me HER three questions, thank me for the meeting, tell me that she needed to make a call, and we’d be done. Never mind that I’d prepared for the conversation; she was in complete control and, like an off-balance base runner at first base, I was reacting.
What to do? One key to shifting balance in these situations is to eliminate conversation pauses. Integrate a question into the end of an answer so that one flows into the other. In this case, as I finished sharing thoughts about “who’s doing this business well,” I kept going by asking, without pausing, “And how do you see that in your business? Where are you seeing pockets of excellence that you’d like to share across your organization?”
Even, Steven, again. You pause, you lose.
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