WHAT DO EMINEM, ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND FBI HOSTAGE NEGOTIATORS HAVE IN COMMON?
“This guy ain’t no MC, I know everything he’s about to say against me. I am white, I am a bum. I do live in a trailer with my mom.” B-Rabbit
So begins the final rap battle in 8 Mile, the 2002 critically acclaimed movie starring rapper Eminem, based on his early life in Detroit. In the movie’s crescendo, B-Rabbit (Eminem) is up against his more fancied opponent Papa Doc (Anthony Mackie) to become rap battle champion. B-Rabbit goes first, using a rather innovative strategy; he articulates all of the negative things that Papa Doc is likely to say about him, before his opponent can do it. The crowd goes wild, Papa Doc is left speechless, and B-Rabbit is victorious.
B-Rabbit used the strategy to defeat his opponent in a highly confrontational situation. Abraham Lincoln used it more subtly to defuse criticism. Facing accusations from political rivals of being duplicitous and ‘two-faced’, Lincoln famously said; “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”
Former FBI Chief Hostage Negotiator, Chris Voss, applied this strategy to disarm hostage takers quite literally. He then adapted it to the world of business negotiation, labelling it an ‘accusation audit.’ Like Eminem and Lincoln, the basic premise is the same; defuse a difficult situation by articulating all of the negatives, concerns or potential issues your counterpart may have with you, before they can do it.
Now, you’re not likely to be taking part in a heated rap battle, running for the office of President, or trying to disarm a hostage taker anytime soon. You will, however, regularly be in some form of interaction with colleagues, clients or counterparts, who harbor some unhelpful assumptions about you. Giving voice to their concerns before they do, is a powerful strategy to disarm and defuse that concern, and turn it to your advantage. This is not just a strategy I coach leaders to use; it’s one I’ve relied on personally for a very long time.
What thoughts pop into your mind when you hear the term ‘management consultant?’ Now imagine that your boss has just told you and your colleagues that she’s hired a whiz-bang management consulting firm to partner with you on XYZ challenges over the next 12 months. She tells you that this will be a significant commitment for everyone and asks you to make time for a first meeting with the consultant right away. Are you excited and enthusiastic? Not very likely.
This is the reality that has faced my colleagues and I for more than twenty years. We sign up with the CEO, but then need to engage with a much broader audience whose support is critical to achieving our promised outcomes. Rather than ignore this context, we decided many years ago to embrace it. In the very first meeting with client team members, we start with an ‘Eminem-style’ defense.
“We’re guessing that you may have some concerns about this engagement. Perhaps you think we’re going to speak down to you even though you have a much bigger job than we do. Maybe you suspect we’re going to tell you how to run your business, even though you’re the industry expert. Perhaps you think we’re going to apply cookie-cutter approaches to your very specific challenges. Maybe you’re concerned that we’re going to consume a lot of your time, money and resources, only to make your life more complex. Or perhaps you think we’re going to be more focused on trying to sell the next engagement, rather than deliver the value we promised.”
More often than not, the first reaction we get is a smile. Why? Because that’s exactly what they were thinking! The smile is a great sign, as is head nodding and any sound of affirmation. It means that the underlying and unspoken tension has been released. It means that the other party feels understood, and when they feel understood, they’re much more open, curious and collaborative.
The next thing that often happens, is that the other party starts to argue with our negative narrative. “It’s not that bad. I’ve worked with a few decent consultants before! I’m actually quite curious to understand how you can help us with XYZ challenge.”
It runs counter to our instincts to give voice to the potential negatives a counterpart may harbor about us; especially volunteering them upfront. Most of us prefer to pretend they’re not there, only to minimize or argue with them once they’re raised. Even worse, the issues are felt by our counterpart but never raised, silently undermining any real progress in our outcomes and relationships.
A much better approach is to make like Eminem, Abraham Lincoln and the FBI; get it out in the open, so you can get it out of the way. In twenty-plus years of doing this work, I’m yet to find a better strategy for defusing a difficult situation, disarming a cautious counterpart, and shifting from defense into offense.
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