A lifetime ago, in the middle of a drug cartel trial in Hammond, Indiana, a defense attorney threatened to put me on the witness stand and started coaching me about my testimony. When I questioned his ethics, he told me what every litigator learns—you never ask a question unless you know what the answer is going to be.
That’s good advice when preparing for trial, including the trials of life. Ask the questions first and know what to expect later. Sometimes, though, we’re so sure we know the answer, we decide it’s not even necessary to ask any questions.
I make a big point of telling clients that the customer is the ultimate insider. Not only are they the final arbiters of value, they also make the best mirrors. Ask them the right way and they’ll tell you more about your own business than you ever wanted to know.
That’s the problem, of course. How many of us really want to know? No news is good news, right? Why ask for trouble? Instead of asking for rejection, we draw on experience, anecdote and memories that are—like premium vodka—triple filtered.
Which means, of course, that we miss the opportunity to correct the problems that are costing us business.
We simply assert that we know everything we need to know and continue our errant journeys.
I broke that tradition last month, overcoming my own dread and commissioning a survey of my customers. Well, not all were customers, but we queried a group of people who know me to one degree or another in a variety of business and board environments. I’m doing a lot of networking these days, so I was more than a trifle curious about the people I meet or, more accurately, the people who meet me.
As you would expect, the survey showed I have no flaws and everyone thinks I am the most wonderful person they have ever met. All expressed surprise that I felt the need to ask if they had any doubts about my perfection.
Actually, the results were positive, but it turns out (GASP!!) that there might be room for improvement. A few misguided people think I am fallible and they hid behind a cloak of anonymity as they critiqued me.
While some praise me as persistent, others mistake this wonderful trait as stubbornness. While most people yearn to savor every word I utter, a few foolish souls think I can talk too much. Some people respect my candor while others recoil at my bluntness.
It’s enlightening to see how strength in one environment becomes weakness in another, or the traits lauded by one person are grating to someone else.
Obviously, I cannot change myself for each situation, but I can get better at adjusting my presentation for each audience. The first step to improvement, of course, is asking the right questions—and listening to the answers.
I never ended up on the witness stand in Hammond, but I’m creating a transcript every day.
We all do.
Asking for a copy of that transcript can be unnerving. Sometimes, we discover all kinds of stupid stuff, set down in our own handwriting. Sometimes, we come out better than we thought. In either case, though, it’s a valuable exercise to poll the jury.