Series on Assertiveness: Meaningful dialogue

In the story below we see how important it is not lose equanimity even when faced with sudden disappointments or upsets. A true professional should attempt to convey his/her message in a neutral manner without ever being personally accusatory.

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Kim and Gretchen are both freelance graphic designers. A small publishing company had decided to bring out a new line of cookbooks, which would be very design intensive. Kim and Gretchen were both hired to work on the new line. Although they don’t know each other, they negotiated deals for themselves that come out to just about the same amount of money. Both of them were really excited about the new project. They were also gratified to get personal calls from Paul, the editorial director of the publishing company, who told them how great it made him feel to give them this break.

That was on a Friday. On the following Monday, the phone rang again in Kim’s studio, and in Gretchen’s also. This time it wasn’t Paul. It was his assistant, who told the two designers that over the weekend Paul had thought about the new project and had decided to cancel it. He was sorry, but that was his decision, and thanks for your time.

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Kim was instantly furious. First she gave Paul’s assistant an earful, and then she quickly wrote an email to Paul himself. She told him that it had been extremely unprofessional to commit to something and then to suddenly back out of it. She mentioned that she had put other work on hold in order to keep herself available for this project, and now she had probably lost that business as well. Finally, she pointed out how gutless it was of Paul to make his assistant deliver the bad news. From a purely factual point of view, Kim was correct in just about everything she said.

Gretchen was also angry when she got the call from Paul’s assistant, but she knew that moments like this are the test of a professional’s people skills. She spoke briefly but politely with the assistant, and then, like Kim, she wrote an email to Paul. She disciplined herself to express her appreciation for the opportunity, as well as her disappointment that it was not going to take place. And she closed with the hope that even though this didn’t come through, perhaps there, would be another project down the road.

What was the outcome of the episode? First, within a year Paul was gone from the publishing company. His former assistant took over his job, and one of his first acts was to sign Gretchen on for some major new work. He thought of calling Kim as well, but she had seemed so angry that he was sure she wouldn’t want to work with him.

In a walkway situation, it is critical to address future possibilities, not current problems, and definitely not personalities. Resist the temptation to attack anyone personally. If the dialogue starts talking place on that level, people will just defend their self-esteem. Try to maintain a rational frame of mind oriented toward your long-term goals. If necessary, let the other blow off steam without your talking it personally. Make it clear that you know the conflict is about the issues, and it’s not personal. This will help to prevent the other side from feeling angry and defensive both now and when future opportunities come up.