I had a sense my client wasn't cool with the plan I had presented. I had taken some risks by doing my presentation more my way than his. And yet, for an excruciating hour over dinner after the presentation, we talked small talk, the elephant sitting in the middle of the table, between platters of Thai food.
In my head I was preparing myself, choosing among a menu of responses for when he started in....
There was Choice # 1. Defensiveness, where I'd explain all the impossible challenges I'd had.
Then #2, Best Defense is a Good Offense, extra spicy, where he hadn't made things clear in the first place.
Then #3, Over-Apology, where I'd come just short of bowing down in supplication.
#4, Total Avoidance, my old standard, make small talk until it was time to go, suddenly remembering the iron I'd left on.
#5, Feigned Apathy, where I'd take it in and pretend not to care (then go home and throw it up).
And then menu item #6, my new standard, Listening Openly, which is often hard to swallow but causes the least indigestion afterwards.
So, during a long, pregnant pause, I leaned forward, got his attention with my eyes, and said, "I'm taking it that my presentation didn't sit too well with you. You want to tell me your thoughts?"
He let out an audible sigh of relief "Can you take some tough talk?"
"Yes, I'm open to hearing." And then I sat back, purposely opened my arms, took a deep breath into my belly and told myself I was going to be all right. "Just listen, reflect back what he says, let him be heard, it isn't going to kill me, not even my ego. We just saw things differently, he is the client, and I have nothing to loose, only to gain, by telling my hair-trigger ego to go for a walk around the block..."
What ensued was an easy conversation where we discovered assumptions we had each made, misunderstandings. different points of view, and a richness of possibilities that had not been there before such honesty. I kept the client, his respect, and my self-respect, as well.