What would you like to see happen?

“What would you like to see happen?”

thinking businessmanAsk yourself that question. Chances are you’ll look into the distance and, unless you are irredeemably cynical, a glimmer of something highly satisfactory will catch your eye.

Now try asking that question to someone else. The results can be magical, as I’ll explain.

A few years back, when I was doing PR in an old-school, corporate environment, I arrived at work early one morning to find that someone had left a bomb on my chair. It was a page ripped from our latest newsletter, with a paragraph circled in red ink, and the following message scribbled in the margin:

“WRONG. Call me immediately!”

It was signed with the initials of Madame X, our fearsome director of finance.

My heart sank and my blood pressure soared. I picked up my phone but had the sense to call not Madame X but the manager of our customer service department. I confided in her what was going on. (I remember that I was so nervous I was afraid to sit down in my chair.)

“Yep, that’s Madame X, all right,” the customer service director said with a sympathetic laugh. “Don’t panic. Here’s what you to do: When we hang up, call her. She’ll come storming over to your office, stand in your door way, and give you hell. Whatever you do, don’t interrupt her while she’s talking. Don’t argue, don’t apologize. Just listen. When she stops talking, look her in the eye and say. “OK. What do you want to see happen?”

“That’s it?”

“Yup,” the customer service manager said. “She’ll tell you, and then you just do it.”

I followed her directions. Madame X appeared in my doorway so fast I thought she’d been teleported into the building. She did, indeed, give me hell.

As she was talking, I had visions of her asking me to resign or demanding that the entire 16-page newsletter be reprinted, with a correction, and sent to our thousands of clients. I had to stop myself from offering up one of those solutions as she ranted along for 10 minutes.

But when she stopped, I looked her in the eye and said, “OK. What do you want to see happen?”

“Oh,” she said, looking surprised. “Well, actually, nothing. I just wanted you to know how I felt.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well. Thank you. It was helpful.”

Madame X left, looking a bit stunned, and I sank into my chair for the first time that morning. When I recovered, I ordered flowers for the manager of customer service.

Since then, I’ve used this technique dozens of times in really sticky situations. The results have been nothing short of miraculous. In many cases, what could have been a destructive argument transformed instantly into a problem solving session. In other cases, the person just wandered off like Madame X. (It’s worth noting that Madame X later became a friend of mine.)

I’ve been meaning to share this technique for quite a while. What motivated me to write about it today was that I tried it recently and it failed to resolve the situation. My conclusion from that failure was that this is a tactic that works better in person than it does in email. But a 99% success rate isn’t bad.

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