Bad presentation–or resistant audience?

Executives often find themselves assigning blame. Many believe that ranking and sorting their colleagues is a key management skill–and I agree. A much rarer and more powerful skill is the ability to see our own contribution to the unwelcome behavior we see around us. Why is self-awareness more powerful than judging others? Because altering my own behavior is the best access I have to altering the future.

I know this. I teach this. I also forget to practice it.

In November of 2007, for example, I was in San Diego attending a weekend training for coaches. A breakout session was led by the author of one of the best-known books on coaching. It is a good book and I was very eager to attend. His ninety minute workshop was scheduled six times over two days–I was in a morning session on day two.

The author immediately struck me as irritated, aggressive, and arrogant. (Here I am, always ranking and sorting.) His opening seemed vague and rambling and his responses to questions were not pertinent. (Here I go, proceeding to collect evidence for my case.) People were shaking their heads and looking at each other. Coaches are a fairly supportive audience but in the first fifteen minutes, five of the thirty people walked out, one while the author was responding (elliptically) to his question! (Perfect. I have other people agreeing with me, a seductive substitute for truth.) I decided to “checkout” and worked on my laptop at the back of the room.

At one point the author gave a very specific “tip” for coaching and with his next sentence behaved contrary to that exact advice. I laughed loudly and others rolled their eyes. People kept trying to get the presentation back on track by asking specific questions but the author went his own way. One irritated response from him was, “I’ll be getting to that if you’ll just be a little patient.” I called out, “You are an hour into an hour and a half session!” This got assenting murmurs from the group. At the scheduled end time the author showed no sign of wrapping-up. I got up and walked out.

After lunch, I was working my way through the crowd to a session adjacent to where the author was doing his sessions. Off to my side, I heard him say, in anger, “You are unbelievably rude.”

I turned to face him, toe-to-toe, and responded, “You need to remember who the customer is.” He kept walking into his room and said, loudly, “Your behavior is inexcusable!” His demeanor was so pugilistic that, instead of following him, I went into my session next door.

I noticed, somatically, that I was stressed. I could feel the chest tightness, the raging energy in my gut, and all the classic “fight” preparedness. I did not want to be in this state but saw no opening for action. I put my attention on the session I was in and let the emotions subside.

After the session, I returned to thoughts of the incident. What was I committed to? Who do I say I am in the world? Certainly not a person who dis-empowers a fellow coach. The author was twenty feet away so I still had a chance to alter the outcome. There had to be an appropriate conversation, even with an angry, stressed, possibly violent man. But, what conversation was called for in this circumstance? I stood in the hall for several minutes, pondering.

The answer came when I stopped being constrained by the circumstances. I chose to be guided by my values, by my commitment to “Workplaces of humanity and prosperity.” I was moved by my stands that everything can be handled in relationship, that conversation is the golden path to relationship, and that taking responsibility for how things are creates an opening for action.

I did not welcome the resulting insight but knew it was the way to make a difference. First, I would request a conversation and I would apologize. Ugh!

I found the author alone between sessions. I walked into the room and said, “How would you like to try that conversation again. Maybe we can get to a better outcome?” He seemed skeptical and wary but sat down with me. He complained about how poorly the audience responded and said it was “disempowering” when people walked out.

I agreed that we in the audience had made it unnecessarily difficult. “I am sorry that I did not look for some way to help during the session. Instead, I just kept reinforcing that it was not working.” He talked a bit more about what he had tried and how frustrated he had been. I said “Goodbye,” “Sorry,” and “Good luck” and walked out.

He followed me out into the hall and said, “That was great that you came back in there. Thank you.”

I said, “I failed to help you with the session I was in but maybe I’ve been able to make this next one easier for you.”

His face softened for the first time. He said, “I really appreciate that.” He touched his chest with two fingers then pressed them to my chest, saying, “And I mean that from my heart.”

I have an impact on people, even from the audience. Maybe audience is a false distinction, an evasion? There is just human relationship. I either choose to be responsible for my role in the outcome or not. That choice occurs all day–every day–and it has consequences.



See also on this blog, Closeness Counts: The Basic Biology of Intimacy.