Dealing with Others
In every context, everyone hopes, and rightly expects, to be shown an element of respect, no matter how humble their occupation. Manners, politeness and etiquette are society's way of codifying these concepts in everyday dealings. Yet no one wants to be a pushover or be seen in a negative light.
How do you come across as both polite and capable?
Politeness is about form. Keeping your ego out of the conversation and, if necessary, tolerating rudeness (up to a point) if you are in a position of providing or selling a service. Hence the adage 'the customer is always right' in a retail setting. Capability is a matter of substance rather than form. Think of the excellent example you see from SQ cabin crew. Completely capable in their work, and patiently tolerant of any arrogant, demanding or even rude clients.
So what are some practical ways you can deal with people better?
Get to the Root
It’s useful to try to see things from the perspective of the other party. How much time do they have, why have they come, what do they really want. What might they really need that could be different?
In a meeting, an inquisitive approach with open-ended questions that encourage your customer or partner to speak will achieve many objectives. It shows respect. It builds trust, as you will appear as someone who seeks to understand. It helps you learn more about your customer. It will help you check that you have understood correctly. It will leave a favourable impression of the meeting.
If a client appears rude in a business meeting, rather than being offended, I think it is interesting to consider what may be the real root cause. There may be an underlying dissatisfaction or frustration that could actually turn out to be a selling opportunity. Listening, exploring and showing empathy may yield surprisingly favourable results. Occasionally, a smile or gentle use of humour may disarm.
Give the Benefit of the Doubt
A simple and yet powerful response is to give people the benefit of the doubt when a person comes across as rude. Always respond in a friendly and helpful tone, be quick to apologise for any misunderstanding, and you’ll be surprised by the response that you receive.
There are of course limits, and behaviours that should not be tolerated. I was in a business meeting some years ago when a prospect suddenly became angry and started shouting for no apparent reason. His language was bad. This does not need to be tolerated, so I stood up, thanked him for his time, and led my colleagues out of the room.
On another occasion I told a very big client, who used to regularly call and swear at junior staff, to close his account and take his business elsewhere. You have to set your own standards and live to them. Thankfully, I had an excellent boss at the time who was supportive. Make sure the people you’re working for have such shared values before you choose to end a working relationship this way.
Take time to pay attention and be fully present. The habit of looking at your emails during a business meeting, and especially at a client meeting, is worse than sending a bad email. You risk sending the message that the present meeting with them is less important than what you’re attending to on your phone.
Twenty years ago, one would have had to get out a newspaper during a meeting to give a similar impression, and I don't think that happened very much. So it is the etiquette in this electronic age that is the biggest change today. This has also resulted in a definite reduction in attention spans, which we must be aware of and counter in any professional interaction.
On the same point of the digital age, preparing for a meeting has become much easier so you should be using it to your advantage and doing your research on people, companies and facts. To be well prepared for a meeting is a great way to show respect for the other party.
We are in a world of information overload, with constant distractions, short attention spans, and noise. We also have a dozen thoughts in our heads as we try to multi-task. A useful habit is to block out short periods of time without phone or email interruption to think, plan and focus on specific customers and their needs. If you’re in a meeting, focus on completely listening and understanding whoever is speaking without necessarily preparing to interrupt. Really listening, rather than just waiting to talk.
In dealing with big egos, the details of etiquette can never be overdone. Courtesy, respect and paying attention should be enough for most business situations to achieve your goals.