Yesterday I was talking to “Phil”, who I mentor, about how well he was standing in the shoes of others when working with them. Understanding them helps you to advise them.
Phil was telling me about a meeting he had with someone from audit that came asking for his help. He soon realised that they were not clear on why they were meeting with him and he decided to help them become clear. He explained it would be best to think more about the questions they needed to ask and that they should come back when they were clear.
I asked if they left the meeting at least a bit aggrieved. Answer – “yes”. And is your relationship with them important? Answer – “You never know who you will end up working with or for in the future”.
I congratulated Phil on his second answer. Unfortunately, the damage was done, however, we spoke about how he could have handled it differently.
Two methods came to mind.
One is to take them through a line of questioning where they conclude they need to go back and do their homework as they are likely to end up wasting the time spent in the current meeting. That is, let them come to the conclusion you have already drawn.
The other was to tell them a story. Most of us has a story about being pulled up by a senior person for wasting their time for not being sufficiently prepared. Mine was a lecture from a leader in charge of a $4bn+ capital program when I was a raw consultant. My memory is a bit hazy, however, in essence he finished with “You’re in the big league now”, then stood up and walked back from the meeting table to his desk. No handshake, nothing more said.
If I chose to use this story the trick would be how you turn it into a learning for the unprepared person in front of you so they feel good, not bad. You could say something like “Sounds like we are not quite clear on what we need to get out of this meeting. I suffered a severe trauma many years ago as a rookie consultant doing a stakeholder engagement with a leader of a … Can you imagine how I felt! Anyway, we are nowhere near anything like that day right now, but I have it ingrained in my DNA about clarifying the purpose of meetings so we all walk away feeling good about the time spent. Can I suggest …”
Remember, it's how you send a message that counts.