About five years ago I took on a new client in New York City. This company had lawsuits against it, high turnover, and terrible press. One of the first people I met was a senior leader we’ll call Hunter.
“Look Peter, you seem like a nice guy,” Hunter said with a smile as he looked at me from across his desk, “but there have been several consultants before you and there will be several more after you. If you think you’re going to change the way we do things here, well, you’re mistaken.”
Hunter smiled at me again and I had a strong, visceral reaction — I immediately disliked him.
After leaving the meeting I called my uncle Guy, a successful businessman in London, and told him the story. “I can’t work with this company.”
“Why not?” Guy asked.
“Hunter. Honestly? I really don’t like the guy.” I answered.
He laughed. “You don’t have to like him, Peter. You just have to do business with him.”
Guy was right. And he was pointing out a habit that costs many of us tremendous opportunity. Our reaction to an event creates an unproductive outcome.
In my case, the event was that Hunter told me I wouldn’t be effective. My reaction was to dislike Hunter and avoid working with him. The outcome would have been the loss of that client.
This simple event-reaction-outcome chain governs most of our spontaneous action. Something or someone hooks us and we react. Someone yells at us, we yell back and create the outcome of a damaged relationship. It’s not that we want a damaged relationship, it’s just what happens when we yell back.
And that’s the problem. The most important part of the chain, arguably the only part that really matters, the outcome, is collateral damage from our reaction. It’s not intentional. We’re reacting to the event. The outcome is simply fallout.
But, this time, before making that mistake, I paused; which gave my rational self time to negotiate with my emotional self. And, lucky for me, during that negotiation they must have agreed to call Guy for advice.
Guy offered an alternate chain. Focus on the outcome, then choose your reaction.
Rather than focus on my personal reaction to Hunter, Guy suggested that I focus on what I wanted, which was to grow the business.
When an unsettling event occurs, pause before reacting. In that pause, ask yourself a single question: what is the outcome I want? Then, instead of reacting to the event, react to the outcome.
In other words, stop reacting to the past and start reacting to the future.
If someone yells at you, pause before yelling back. Then ask yourself what outcome you want. If the answer is “an improved relationship,” don’t yell back. Instead, in a normal voice, empathize with their anger and ask some questions about the concerns raised in the midst of the screaming. That’s a reaction that will achieve a better relationship.
Here’s the hard part: You react to the event because it’s asking you to react to it. But just because the event catalyzed your action, doesn’t mean it should determine it. How you react can and should be determined by the outcome; by the future you want to create.
Maybe a colleague comes to you complaining about a situation she’s in with her boss (event). How should you respond (reaction)? If the outcome you want is her feeling supported, then listen to her with empathy. If you want to help her, then offer solutions. If you simply want to get back to work, then find a graceful escape.
This is particularly useful in personal relationships. When a problem is presented to me (event), my instinct is to solve it (reaction). On the other hand, what I want most with my wife Eleanor is a strong vibrant relationship (outcome). So when she comes to me with a problem, instead of immediately trying to solve it, I ask her what she wants me to do. Listen? Solve? Coach? I am surprised, disappointed even, by the number of times she says “just listen.” Wait, I want to tell her, I have ideas. Solutions. I can help. But after almost 10 years of marriage I’ve realized that listening is sometimes all the help she wants from me. So I listen.
In the end, I continued to work with Hunter and his company for several years. Instead of focusing on Hunter, I focused on the goal of creating a more functional, productive management process for the company.
At one point, I was back in Hunter’s office, planning an offsite I was going to lead for him when I saw my book on his bookshelf.
“Have you read it?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered, “and it’s not bad.”
You know, I thought to myself, I might like this guy after all.
Not that it matters.