Moments of Truth, Improvised

Anyone who’s been in professional services for more than a week has probably encountered a tricky client situation or two. Some examples:

– A prospective client asks you point blank, “What experience do you have in xyz industry?” and even though you saw that question coming, you didn’t think it would be quite so direct, and the honest answer is zero, zip, nada—only you’re afraid to say so because you think it’s a deal-breaker and you’ve got other relevant experience that surely they’ll want to hear about before summarily dismissing you!

– You thought the draft deliverable you turned in yesterday was pretty good until you got an email from your client saying how disappointed she is in the product and that, quite frankly, she’s seriously re-considering sending you to London for the next and largest revenue-producing phase of the project.

– You’re seconds away from beginning a meeting with a very senior client, originally scheduled to discuss how to expand the successful work you’re doing together, but an hour earlier you accidentally overheard him in the lunchroom speaking with colleagues about dumping your company and hiring your number one competitor instead.

(By the way: 2 of those 3 really happened to us: which is the made-up story?)

I call these Moments of Truth—when something happens, and suddenly it feels like you’re alone on a sinking ship with no life preserver in sight, and you’d rather be anywhere but where you are.

Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ,” taught us to understand the science behind our reaction, using the phrase “amygdala hijack” to describe how our well-functioning “thinking brain” (the neocortex) gets completely overruled by the part of the brain that manages our survival. Then our amygdala-threatened-selves do stupid things like spin a great story of how we don’t exactly have direct experience in xyz industry but blah blah blah … or subtly (and maybe overtly) blame our colleague for the sub-par work product … or completely sidestep an awkward interaction altogether in favor of maintaining the pretense that everything really is OK after all. In other words: we’re in fight or flight mode, and often both at once.

Moments of Truth become Moments of Learning

We spend a lot of time dealing with Moments of Truth in our learning programs because they happen a lot in your business relationships. How you handle them speaks volumes about what you’re made of. It speaks to whether or not you have the mindset, motives, and agility of a Trusted Advisor. Being effective in a Moment of Truth requires more than mastering a few behavioral tricks; it demands a new way of thinking and being.

So we do a lot of out-of-the-box experiential learning that deals on the spot with your own live, real situations. Occasionally we use our own caselets for you to experiment with—ones that have been tested for a decade and earned a special place in the hearts of our alumni, like “The Lunchroom.” In other words, we do what most classroom learners universally dread: we role-play.

All right, collective groan–I know, I know, I hate role-playing too. It’s scary and contrived. And there’s never enough background or history or facts to be really comfortable in a role-play. It’s a common refrain during debriefs: “If only I’d known more about the situation I could have handled it better.”

But let’s be real: How many times have you prepped for hours for a meeting, only to learn in the first two minutes that the client just came out of another meeting in which a major decision was made that completely alters not only your agenda for this meeting but your entire set of recommendations for the engagement?

In a Moment of Truth, background and history and facts don’t matter one iota because your reptilian brain doesn’t care—it’s focused exclusively on the emotions of the moment. It has neither the time nor the inclination to process anything else.

Q. Faced with an MOT, what’s a Trusted Advisor to do?

A. Learn how to improvise.

The Practice of Improvisation: a Key Trusted Advisor Capability

To improvise is to “invent, compose, or perform with little or no preparation.” Which is exactly what is called for in a Moment of Truth—the ability to deal on the spot with something unexpected.

Believe it or not, you get better at improvising by practicing improvisation. (And that only sounds like an oxymoron—it’s actually very true). Practice is exactly how professional improv comedians (think, Whose Line is it, Anyway?) become so skilled at their craft.

They practice being quick to respond instead of over-thinking. They practice “yes-and” responses, where they build on what’s already been said, instead of contradicting or denying what someone else has already offered. They practice subordinating their own egos to support what’s being created by the collective instead of hogging the spotlight and stealing a scene. They practice giving up being clever and witty and funny and instead get real.

How do they do this? They get together and … role-play. They do it again and again, always with new scenarios and relationships that are completely made up on the spot. And when it’s show time and the curtain goes up, they still have no idea what they’re going to create together because everything is based on audience suggestion. But what they do know is that they’re fully rehearsed at being responsive, collaborative, and authentic.

In Trusted Advisor terms, they’re credible, transparent, other-oriented, related.

And that is something worth practicing to get good at. So: role-plays? Yep, role-plays.

The Trusted Advisor/Improviser—a Brief Commercial

If you think your skills could use a tune up or you wish you felt more confident in the Moments of Truth you face with your clients and colleagues, we’d love to have you come practice with us Sept 28 and 29 in Washington, DC. Being a Trusted Advisor: Walking the Talk is a rare opportunity to immerse yourself in the mindsets and skill sets of a Trusted Advisor.

We’ll improvise. We’ll laugh a lot. And we’ll be sure you walk away with far greater value than you expected.