Preparing For A Difficult Encounter? Here’s A Solution

Knowing how you want this to end is a good start.

Mona Lisa’s Cryptic Smile

I was preparing myself for my evaluation because I knew it would not be pleasant. That morning I noticed on the calendar appointment that my supervisor had invited her supervisor to sit in with us; she didn’t let me know ahead of time. When I asked her about it she was non-committal: “I’m allowed to invite someone to join us.”

The year had been tumultuous, to say the least. It was a position completely out of my comfort zone, a complete 180 degrees from the human side of grant work to the finance & compliance side of a multi-million dollar grant. I knew early in the project that my supervisor was not my biggest fan when she said:

I don’t know why they hired you. You have none of the qualifications for this job.

The work was a stretch for me, but I was confident that with support I would be successful. I asked for guidance when I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing, and my work to that point had been well-received. The quarterly reports I submitted to our funding agencies were getting rave reviews; at one point, one of those agencies asked to use one of our quarterly reports as an example for other grantees. It was my relationship with my boss that was substantially more challenging than the work.

Was I a perfect employee? Nope. I was learning new skills — personal & professional — every single day. It wasn’t easy. I’ve written a lot about my time in that position; I don’t regret the experience because I learned so much.

As I was mentally preparing for the evaluation, I called my friend to talk me off the ledge. My hands were shaking, palms were sweaty, and I could feel my heart pounding. I had 10 minutes. My very wise friend’s* advice was this:

When you’re in the room, imagine there’s a video being recorded. Imagine you will view that video in 10 years. Imagine how you want to see yourself when you view that video in the future. Will you be pleased with yourself? Or embarrassed? Will you wish you handled things differently?

I sat in that small, closed-door room and imagined a camera catching the entire discussion. Every time I felt the urge to be defensive, or to respond in anger, I would remember my friend’s awesome advice. I imagined seeing myself in 10 years with a Mona Lisa smile on my face. My supervisor seemed to try very hard to get me to react in anger. I could see her frustration at not being able to point and say “see? This is why I can’t work with her!” Her supervisor sat quietly, barely looking up from her notepad, obviously uncomfortable with the tone my supervisor was taking in this evaluation, the direction of the comments toward personal attack and away from constructive feedback.

The imaginary video camera caught me with my Mona Lisa smile, leaning forward just slightly to indicate good listening posture, and then slowly leaning back slightly to demonstrate my comfort in my skin. It caught me responding to her concerns with answers like:

Hmm. I can see why there was miscommunication about that.

And:

It must have been frustrating for you. I didn’t intend to be insulting. Here’s how I thought that conversation went…

The meeting was over and I smiled as I opened the door for my supervisor and her supervisor. Her supervisor and I had agreed on a course of action to correct some of my misunderstandings about the internal financial system, and to schedule a meeting so I could explain how I had created our quarterly reports.

True Colors, Cyndi Lauper

I felt like I had taken back my life. My entire outlook had adjusted. It was time to take a walk, breathe, and assess. I had a genuine smile on my face for the first time in days. I saw my supervisor walking the other direction, a grimace on her face, clearly aggravated. It made me a little sad. My relief should not have been reason for her frustration. But that wasn’t mine — I didn’t own it.

I imagined watching that video some time in the future; I was satisfied with how I handled the situation, with grace, compassion, and dignity.

How do you prepare for what you know will be a difficult meeting?

*Thanks to Marcia Polas for the advice I share regularly.

Sarah Elkins is a professional coach and consultant, helping people and businesses improve their communication through the art of storytelling. She’s also the President of Elkins Consulting, the company making a splash with small, face-to-face, affordable interactive conferences called No Longer Virtual.