Who Do You Think You Are?

This relates an important life event, it’s an odd situation, so let me set the scene.

David L. was a client of mine. He asked me for help; a big client of his was demanding a big meeting regarding a climate control system he’d designed and installed for them. They reckoned it wasn’t up to scratch, and David was worried as he wasn’t a suit-wearing corporate type, and didn’t ‘do meetings’. David wore overalls everyday, even though he was the boss.

I was a tad put out that I was, to him, a suit-wearing corporate type, but I said I would come along and “hold his hand”.

“So what do I do?” He asked in worried tones as we drove to their place that sunny morning.

“The main thing,” I said, “Is to admit to nothing, agree to nothing, and offer up nothing.”

“Really? So we don’t have to come to a conclusion or anything?”

“No; we’re there to listen – to their fears, complaints, grievances, suggestions, demands – whatever they’ve got on their collective mind.” I continued.

“So we are not defending or attacking or…”

“Oh no – and the shorter the meeting, the better.”

“Right-o, keep it short and sweet.”

“David, the less we say, the better. Saying things drags things out; it refreshes the discussion and leads to other things, remember that we just want to gather information and get out – so we can figure out what to do about it all in private.”

“OK, you do all the talking,” he nervously said, and we parked up and went in to the lions’ den.

After the round of handshakes, we were presented with coats, shower-caps, and shoe covers. I regretted wearing my ‘power suit’. I hadn’t known that we were attending a meeting in an atmosphere controlled and graded-air facility. It added a sense of surreality to the proceedings. I wondered if this was to put us on the back foot; they would be used to this, and this was their domain. Hmmm.

So. There we all were, sitting around a big boardroom table. Not a single suit and tie was visible, not a distinguished greying temple, not a shined brogue.

But boy, they had brought in their Big Guns – chaps had flown up from head office – it was a lynch mob of TEN to us two. A Multi-National against an SME. David & Goliath? This. Was. Not. Looking. Good.

During the pre-meeting chattering, I leaned over to David, and whispered through clenched teeth, “This is Not Good – say absolutely nothing, no matter what happens.” I knew he was a hot-head, and I knew he was (like me) feeling like a cornered animal.

The meeting got under-way by a chap who was comfortable, relaxed and confident in public speaking and chairing meetings.

We gave them nothing in the pauses, I scribbled in my pad.

The next speaker was more direct, more of an attacker. Still we held sway.

I saw from the corner of my eye that David wanted to butt in and fix some ‘wrong’, but I managed to kick him under the table, and he broke off and shot me a look of suddenly remembering the Game Plan.

We were giving them nothing, so they interrupted themselves, soon everyone had got their knife in.

At times, we both dearly wanted to take the bait and engage them, it was hard, but we kept ourselves in check. I badly wanted to do some body language display, but having to be near David for a kick or hand on the wrist, meant that I was sitting too attentively.

Not just that, but I needed to change to a more comfortable position, so I decided to heck with it, and sat back, crossed my leg, and jotted on the pad propped on my knee.

This move coincided with the first time I had to speak; we’d been asked a direct question. My answer was monosyllabic. And so it went on – minimalist answers, long pauses, the dissipation of the curve.

We could see that they had used up their ammo, and I had politely acknowledged everything they had said, taking care to repeat it back to assure them that we had a full grasp of their point. I had agreed to look into it quickly, thoroughly, and professionally, and I smiled as I promised that we would work with them to find a satisfactory solution to all their problems. I think it helped that I had no idea about this project, and so I did not have all the ins and outs at my fingertips to distract me.

When enough was enough, I used the body language codes of shutting my book, standing up, and offering a handshake, as a sign that this meeting was over.

David was beside himself all the way back to the office! He was excited and thrilled! It went exactly as we’d planned, and he admitted that he was nearly ‘sucked in’ a few times. He called his wife, his people, everyone. I think it was relief and nervous exhaustion more than anything else – he’d lost a lot of sleep in the days before this meeting. A lot was at stake for him.

Now, I did nothing very special, to my mind. I followed the simplest rules regarding politeness, fairness, and the customer has to be happy at the end of the day.

For me it’s not about winning, losing, bullying, dog-eat-dog, personalities, career moves, postulating, aggression, ladder-climbing, or whatever – it’s not an arena, a bullring, a gladiatorial contest. But I know that some think it is, or should be. Stuff them; we won’t play that game – small businesses just can’t afford to.

To this day, David says I saved his company. I’m flattered, of course, but it’s an exaggeration.

I have never had a ‘proper job’, as I have always worked for myself in one capacity or another; I like it that way. I cannot imagine being on a career path or corporate ladder, living in fear of my job, or of not-getting promoted, or of the younger man. I usually speak just for myself; I usually have only myself to worry about. This was different in that I was with someone else, I was representing someone, but then, I’ve been at business meetings of all kinds and levels pretty much all my adult life.  What was really different about this one was that I learned something profound.

Yes, it was not a simple case of following the rules and doing the job (‘the usual’), this was the one time in my life that I’ve received performance feedback.

Because, for weeks and months after this meeting, David provided me with a stream of feedback about myself, and I was astounded. When you work on your own, you cannot get this. Because we were double-handed at the meeting, I got a new perspective, a new angle on what happened.

It must have been just as unusual for David too. Bosses are alone and lonely creatures. There’re no friends with which you can share – he was loving this!

He gleefully reported that one chap he’d spoken with on the telephone shortly after the meeting, found me ‘slick’, and he congratulated David on bringing in a high powered consultant – Huh?

Another report was that I was ‘too laid back’ – and that I did him no favours. I was also reported as being ‘too aggressive’, ‘too legalistic’, ‘nippy, sniping and picky’, ‘obviously dumb and mentally slow’, ‘a lightweight’, ‘not aggressive enough’, and everything in-between.

I was described as ‘a bit young’, ‘seasoned’, and even  ‘that old lawyer David brought along’!

What went on here? How can I be all those things? Remember – I said as little as possible, we did not chat before or after either. We were wearing shower-caps and coats. They had few clues, so perhaps it was just the body language – but that seems to have been interpreted in many ways.

So I have to say that this short meeting has taught me that I am not in control of what ‘I am’ – and what ‘I am’ is filtered through the imaginations of others.

I am not what I think I am. I am not what I want to be. What I want to be changes every five minutes anyway. I am not what I was. What I was changes when I see an old photograph, read an old diary entry or hear about myself from someone else.

Robert Burns’s famous “To see yourself as others see you” is not even half the story.

Descartes famously said (in translation), “I think therefore I am”. This ought to be “I think therefore I am – whatever that is.”

TL;DR – In summary, I went to a meeting and found out that the impression I made was ridiculously varied. As a result of which, I suddenly understood that I have no idea who I am, that who I am is not a fixed concept, and that who I am is not really in my control.

But you have the right to your opinion of you as much as other people have the right to their opinion of you.

What to do about this knowledge? This realisation? – well, I would suggest that you stop worrying about it; it’s not something you can control, so let it go.

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