When your clients ask the impossible

One of my coaching clients told me about a moment of such consulting brilliance that I had to share. She manages the workflow of an internal advertising agency. Her daily bread is the impossible deadline: A brochure takes 3 weeks, the account manager wants it in 3 days, because the client needs it. I’ve been infiltrating her organization with The Anxious Organization, by Jeffrey Miller, and reinforcing his basic message: Responding to another’s anxiety with your own anxiety makes everyone more crazy. Better to calmly stand for what’s correct, proper and factual. That way everyone calms down and can think more clearly.

So, she gets one of these crazy requests, with an added detail: the event the brochure is meant to support is in 3 days. So, she calmly says: “A brochure like that takes 3 weeks. Tell your client that and ask if they still want the brochure. If they do, we’ll be happy to produce it.”

Pure genius.

The message behind the words is this: “We want to help, we say yes to the brochure and yes to you and your client, and we say no to the deadline.” The effect of calmly pointing out the obvious is that everyone relaxes and is able to focus on the real issue: The client needs something in 3 days and it can’t be a brochure. Problem-solving ensues. If I’m the client, I might say “What can you get me in 3 days?” And, if I were my client, I might say “What are you hoping to accomplish?” Horse-trading ensues, this time about real needs rather than imaginary solutions.

She could have said: “3 days? Are you crazy? We can’t do a brochure in 3 days! We can’t do it.” And waited for the call from her boss’s boss’s boss, telling her to do it anyway. That’s the usual response to saying no the work, the account manager and the client.

She could have said “That’s an impossible deadline. We’ll do what we can,” and delivered the brochure in 3 weeks, while being hounded by the account manager and the client, and damaging her organization’s credibility. We’ve all heard the lie meant to soothe: The check is in the mail. Your new kitchen will be ready in 2 weeks. I’m from HR, I’m here to help.

The key is this: Say no to the crazy deadline, the idea that will make things worse, the plan that is doomed. But say yes the to person, the relationship, the goal, the inspiration, the aspiration, the ideal, the desire, the yearning that led them to make such a hair-brained request in the first place. That’s where the home run is, lurking just under the request that makes you want to scream.

Think of the client or the request you most want to say no to. Separate out the part you will say no to from the part you can authentically support. Treat them separately, and speak the unanxious truth to both. In the midst of all the noes you must say, what can you say yes to?

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