I ran into someone unexpected at a client meeting this morning. During the meeting, I learned for the first time he has taken an executive position with this client. It threw me a bit due to an earlier and not-so-pleasant business relationship. However, he greeted me with enthusiasm and seemed genuinely happy to have me working on their project.
His greeting indicated a willingness to forget the past, so I spent the meeting carefully choosing my words. I wanted to convey a strong understanding of the project. I also wanted to demonstrate that I too could put the past behind me. After the meeting, I felt good about how I handled the situation and confident about the project. Driving home, I got to thinking how hard it can be to say the right words in difficult situations.
One example captures this concept better than any I’ve experienced. During his bid for the Democratic nomination in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy made a campaign stop in Indianapolis. His planned rally would turn into an impromptu memorial for the murdered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Police advised him to cancel the rally because of its location in a dangerous area of the city. Kennedy refused, and on his arrival, found the crowd to be in good spirits. They hadn’t heard the news. Putting aside his prepared remarks, he addressed the crowd.
(Courtesy of luogocomune.)
Now think about the particulars of this situation. Kennedy was a white man addressing a mostly African-American audience.
He was a politician. His audience was every day people.
He came from a privileged background. These people lived in a poor area of Indianapolis.
After Dr. King’s death, over 100 cities experienced race riots. Indianapolis was one of the only major cities that did not. Kennedy found the words.
Most difficult situations will not require riot prevention. But it does takes practice. Based on today’s meeting, my technique still needs work too. However, don’t underestimate the difference the right words can make. Pay attention to your audience. Find a common point of reference. Then start. Sometimes the hardest part is opening your mouth.
Fear of difficult situations can get in the way of some amazing opportunities. So don’t let fear stop you from trying to find the words.