The outcome you achieve after facing a challenging situation—for better or worse—is limited by your assumptions or “story” going into it. In fact, walking into almost any potentially difficult conversation, our understanding is at best incomplete, no matter how much forethought we’ve given it.
It’s human nature to prepare for what may be difficult, particularly if we are under normal stress. We tend to rehearse in our minds what we will say and do, so as not to get caught off guard, which, while understandable, causes its own problems.
For example, an executive client was reviewing one of his service providers. Prior to touching base with his vendor, he thought to himself, "We are spending plenty of money each year on this firm's services, and they are doing a really excellent job. At the same time, my company is going through some changes in our organizational structure. I'm thinking that now's the time for my team to take a fresh look at the existing relationship with this firm." He found himself questioning things like, "Are we using the current relationship as effectively as possible? How does that relationship best fit our current structure? Are we being a good client?” etc. After some thought, he contacted the head of that company to solicit a discussion about these and other questions.
The service company head agreed to a one-on-one meeting. He showed up at my client's office both anxious and defensive. He started off by suggesting ways my client’s people had been less than effective in their work together.
After the face-to-face meeting, we discovered that the service firm had recently lost some of its business. In hindsight, the firm's head clearly folded those experiences into his “story” prior to seeing my client. What expectations, or script, had he walked in with? Apparently, he assumed my client was going to say something like, "We're not happy, and we're not sure we're going to continue working with you..." All told, he'd mistakenly walked into the discussion with a confrontational script, and was playing both offense and defense—all of which was self-determined and avoidable.
The meeting ended up being a turning point in their relationship—and not a good one. Yet with a different approach, that particular conversation could have been a way to deepen and improve their collaboration.
Let’s say, instead, the service provider showed up without a script, in inquiry mode, or at least with an open mind. Imagine he was able to “improvise” and see what happened—a mental preparation framework like: "I’m going to ask questions, listen, and have a great conversation in order to be of even better service to this client in our work together."
Now, that meeting could have really been something to remember—in a good way. It likely would have created new possibilities, rather than creating new issues or bumps in the road in the relationship.
The impulse to walk in with a script rather than a list of questions—whether driven by lost business, fear of the unknown, nerves, a desire to do well (or whatever else is going on in your world)—is natural, but not optimal.
Leaders, when faced with challenging situations, are better off assuming the best and walking into a discussion with an open mind. They've learned that listening, asking and then asserting in these meetings is a much more effective approach—one that reduces negative determinism (or a bias to any particular "story") and creates better outcomes.