Uh-oh. You’re at the start of a meeting or a client presentation and it takes a sharp left turn. Perhaps you misjudged your audience or suddenly you realize you are horrifyingly off topic. Or, more commonly, you may have inadvertently hit a hot button and a heated argument erupts. Whatever the cause, there is one sure solution: Hit the metaphorical reset button.
This advice comes from Andrew Sobel, a business consultant, executive coach and author of several books, including Clients for Life and Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others. Sobel likes to retell the story of his business partner and co-author Jerry Panas when he got off on the wrong foot in a meeting with a wealthy benefactor asking for a million-dollar gift for his alma mater—for the wrong program. When Panas realized his error, his response was remarkably bold. He left the room, waited 10 seconds, knocked on the door and asked, “Do you mind if we start over?” The benefactor immediately agreed, the conversation got back on track, and Panas secured the donation for the appropriate program.
Five Tips for Getting Meetings Back on Track
The key to the do-over, says Sobel, is shifting the momentum and retaking control of the situation. “You don’t have to literally ask for a do-over but you have to calmly defuse the situation through your use of language,” he says. What does he suggest?
- Be direct. “Remember, people want you to succeed, so if you are upfront and direct with your desire to start over, they most likely will support that. A simple, ‘I feel like I got off on the wrong foot, do you mind if we start again?’ should suffice.”
- Don’t get defensive. “Plunging ahead without acknowledging your mistake only causes you to get defensive and dig yourself deeper into a hole,” says Sobel. “If you keep on the wrong path, things will only get worse. Apologize, smile, and move on.”
- Turn the conversation around with a question. If the client is ranting, dressing you down or continuing down the wrong path, you can change the momentum by asking a question. According to Sobel, “A great way to do this is to say, ‘Do you mind if I interrupt?’ or “Do you mind if I ask you a question?’”
- Remain calm and confident. “You have to understand that the client’s reaction to you isn’t personal. It may merely stem from having a bad day or an earlier bad meeting. That’s why it is important for you to keep calm and not let yourself get triggered by the situation. Maintain a confidence and lightness in your voice,” Sobel recommends. “Staying relaxed will go a long way in regaining control of the situation.”
- Ask questions. What if the client continues to stonewall you? “Questions can help break through,” says Sobel. “Try things like, ‘Can I ask you a question about X?’ or ‘Can I ask you about something you said a few minutes ago?’ or ‘Could you share your view of the situation?’ Another tip is to ask thoughtful and engaging questions that show you’ve done your homework. For example, ‘I’m curious about something. Why do you do X in this way when others typically do it another way?’”
“In the end,” explains Sobel, “acknowledging that you made a mistake and want to right it only builds your credibility and shows the client that you are genuinely interested in building a more authentic and productive relationship.”