Lost in the Shuffle

A trip to my local government agency reminded me that there’s more work to be done—on myself!

The Takeaway: Build conflict-management strategies into your conversational repertoire so you have something to fall back on when caught off guard.

Call to Action: Read Don’ts for Negotiating Difficult Conversations to get started with simple action steps.

A recent visit to Michigan’s infuriating Secretary of State office to renew my driver’s license reminded me—yet again—of the power that emotion has to influence (i.e. derail) an interaction.

Let me explain…

Like a true procrastinator, I waited until nearly the last possible moment to renew my driver’s license. Luckily, the Secretary of State (SOS) had some online appointments available. Like any true government agency, the SOS is riddled with wait times, long lines, and other bureaucratic irrelevancies. The beauty of an appointment is you get to walk to the front of the line at your scheduled time.

So I get there early. My time comes, but they never announce my number. A quick check of my phone shows I’m supposed to be at window 13. Off I go, in a hurry to get this done already.

At window 13, I met a kind middle-aged woman pecking away at her keyboard. I proudly announced my name and appointment time. The kind lady explained that I wasn’t “in line” (digitally speaking, of course). Although I was there early, I hadn’t responded to the text message quickly enough. I would need to rejoin the line.

She responded to the look of obvious befuddlement on my face by explaining further that someone with an appointment only has 40 seconds to get to the window before getting skipped.

Indignant, my tone of voice shifted, becoming annoyed and aghast. I insisted I’d been there the whole time, that I had an appointment.

In that moment, I saw the kind lady shift to become the stern-and-sick-of-your-attitude lady. Her cheeks flushed, and her posture stiffened. She said she believed me, but it didn’t matter because of their policy.

Only then did I realize that the negotiation had come and passed, and I lost without even putting up a fight. 

In a condescending tone she said, “Now, you’re going to stand and wait in that line right over there.” And she motioned, as if pointing me to the time-out chair.

I believe I could have saved the negotiation with a few simple strategies. But I was down and out and too embarrassed at my rookie mistake. I wasn’t on the lookout for my emotions, so they took me out of the game before I knew I was in it.

In a negotiation or conflict, our adversaries’ emotions can be their detriment and our benefit. But this is only true if we can manage our own emotions from the outset.  Kind Lady’s negative response to my appearance in her line made me feel stressed and anxious. Not only was I upset about maybe not being able to renew my license, but the situation in general just seemed unfair.

My defensive response then triggered her defensive response. Perhaps if I’d used an empathy-building tone and strategy, I could have maneuvered my way into an exception to the rule. In fact, I know I could have.

A downfall of many a negotiation is lack of preparation. I didn’t go into this situation prepared to deal with a conflict. I wasn’t ready for my defensive feelings, so what did I do? I sunk to my level of preparation: naked instinct.

Now, should we go around constantly prepared for conflict? Yes and no. We can’t prepare for every interaction that we might have. But we can build habits and life skills that help us in general situations.

Think what a difference it would have made if I had just paused for two seconds to think of a response.

Time is a powerful ally in negotiation. But the lack of time is an insurmountable foe.

How about if I’d said, “It’s going to seem like I’m just another irate customer.”

According to Chris Voss, this type of statement is an “emotional anchor.” It gets the other person prepared for the worst, so what follows won’t sound nearly as bad.

Another famous Chris Voss technique to follow, “How am I supposed to do that?”

Here, the lady must pause to consider your request. The pause and her consideration engages the logical portion of her brain. Her emotions fizzle out a bit as she considers how to solve my problem.

Now, it could very well be that she still wouldn’t be able to help me out 100%. But she could tell me what to do to get back in digital line, who to talk to, where to stand, etc. This could have played out any number of ways, almost any of which would have been better than what happened.

I know you all are wondering whether I’m driving around on an expired license. I’m not. Everything worked out because another kind lady took pity on me and helped out tremendously.

And just for good measure (not to mention good karma), before I left, I thanked both ladies for being rock stars!

Remember, the negotiation can be upon you at any time, so start building habits to address those unexpected conflicts.

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