Winston Churchill was famous for witty responses in tense situations, and powerfully calm when people shouted at him. There are multiple examples during WWII when people were surprised and shocked by turns of events, and he provided an apt word or decision in the moment. Very few people saw him lose emotional control.
This wasn’t an accidental gift. Churchill systematically prepared privately for public situations. He rehearsed and practiced quips and comments. He thought through possible events and decided on his best response if that happened. In effect, Churchill pre-decided what he would do. This gave him power in the crucial moment to do exactly the right thing.
Leaders must develop the regular practice of pre-deciding how to respond to challenging situations.
How many times have you regretted what you did or said in a meeting? In the heat of surprise your immediate emotional reaction has a low probability of being the best possible reaction. But, prepared leaders are more likely to have productive and useful reactions, even in emotionally-charged situations.
Here are some practical examples:
1. You are heading into a team meeting to review a project that is behind schedule. There could be blame-shifting or excuses, or even some heated words. Perhaps you will be frustrated with the lack of energy or urgency. What will you say, and how? What are the critical issues to address? What would you prefer to take “offline” and discuss privately, and what needs to be said in the meeting? Pre-decide.
2. You have the “opportunity” to update your boss with bad news or disappointing results. What will your opening sentences be? How much context is appropriate to include? What rationale/excuses/blame are you going to identify – and how much emphasis will you put on this? What questions are they likely to ask about next steps and how will you respond – words and tone? Pre-decide.
3. Someone takes offense (which you didn’t intend) at something you say. Will you respond with quick defensiveness, even cutting them off mid-sentence? Do you make eye contact with them as you respond? Do you look around the room and see “who else is with me?” How would you begin an apology? Pre-decide.
4. A meeting gets REALLY slow and boring. Do you switch your attention to email? Do you make a constructive comment to get the meeting moving? Do you make eye contact, roll your eyes, or sigh heavily? Pre-decide.
5. A fellow team member comes to you privately to complain about someone else or some aspect of the project. Are they lining up your support for their position? Do you join in their position and add to it? Will you share what you hear? Do you think through their comments and look for useful truth that can help others or the project? What do you say to “close” that conversation? Pre-decide.
6. You realize too late that your earlier choices mean you cannot fulfill a promise or meet a deadline. Do you begin with excuses? What tone of voice or writing do you convey? If someone berates you in front of others for this failure, how will you respond? How do you describe your next steps? Pre-decide.
7. You introduce your brilliant idea to a project team, the one you were sure EVERYONE would love, and a key stakeholder shoots it down in flames. How do you handle that criticism/rejection? What do you say? Do you introduce a modified form of the idea? Do you pursue more detail about why the idea failed to get the traction you expected? Pre-decide.
The more you can creatively anticipate possibilities and mentally rehearse your best options, the more likely you will be able to give a terrific, constructive response that you won’t regret later.
As you practice this discipline you build up a “library” of How-I-Will-Respond scenarios that you can tap into over and over again. You can upgrade these with refinements based on experience. You will boost your own confidence, and others will recognize your leadership strengths.
[Sidebar: This is a very effective technique for coaching your children, particularly teenagers. Don’t tell them what the “right response” is, but help them think through scenarios that will help them choose how they will respond. Support their independent thinking and decision-making, especially when the best response might feel (in the moment) like an unpopular decision.]
What’s been your experience with pre-deciding? Let us know in the comment section below.