The scandal surrounding News International executives has brought to the fore a number of issues that accountants face day-in and day-out: how to deal with strong personalities and difficult situations, explains Jack Downton.
One can only imagine the temperature of the meetings that have been taking place internally and with external advisers at News International as executives try to piece together what occurred in the past and agree on a strategy for the future. While it is (hopefully) rare that accountants are required to deal with suspected illegal activity, confronting thorny issues, dealing with dominating personalities in meetings and handling angry clients or colleagues is not.
The first lesson that the Murdoch example teaches us is that the truth will come out eventually. Whether as a result of tenacious (honest) journalism, or increased transparency as a result of digital communications, whatever unpleasantness you try to bury will find a way to the surface. It is far better to be straight about bad news right from the start.
Coming clean about a mistake, informing a client about a change in personnel, or breaking the news about a poor result is like holding a hand grenade. Tossing it from one hand to the other in front of the client or the board, and trying to lead into the topic in a disingenuous way, won’t stop it exploding. You demonstrate greater integrity by tossing the grenade in an up-front and honest way, and then working hard to pick-up the pieces.
If you try to hide facts or lie, then very often your body language will throw doubt on the logic of what you say, undermining your arguments and creating subconscious uneasiness in the minds of your audience.
How to deal with the aftermath?
People are going to be angry. The best way to deal with anger is to listen, listen hard and let the other person talk. Very often people are angry because they don’t feel listened to, heard or understood. This is frequently the case with a declining client-adviser relationship.
Entering the discussion with your pre-arranged solution too early can actually make things worse. Be quiet, show you are interested and are genuinely trying to understand their point of view. Don’t argue or interrupt defensively, let the person give full vent to their feelings. Demonstrate your interest by asking questions. Show you are listening by making eye contact, nodding, and grunting: “I see…yes…hmm”. Don’t formulate your answer until the other person has stopped talking. This is often difficult for accountants, particularly in practice, who want to be seen to be advising their clients, or who see asking questions as an admission that they lack knowledge.
Try to match the tone and energy levels of the people you are dealing with as this can help to dissipate anger. Rather than sit contrite and adopt an annoyingly calm and placatory tone, match the energy in the voices at the meeting but without the anger or aggression. Conversely this can have a calming effect on participants and show the aggrieved parties that you understand and are “with them”.
Controlling the bulldogs in the ring
Aggressive, overbearing characters can dominate meetings by winning the noise war, making it very difficult for accountants who may have less assertive and punchy personalities, to be heard. Sometimes it is essential for a technical point of view to be raised because of regulatory repercussions, for example. Body language can be a very effective way of controlling the bulldogs in the ring.
Leaning forward and saying the person’s name is a powerful way to make a person stop for just a moment – enough time to make a point. Repeating the person’s name and saying: “I haven’t finished…” if interrupted, and doing it again with a subtle lean forward and a slight indication of the hand toward the person, looking them in the eye, is an effective way to gain sufficient time to finish the point.
Rambling and banging home the same point in a boring way will quickly lose people’s attention. Make your point and shut up! Start with the main point, justify it, and then stop talking. By keeping it short people will listen. Over time people will learn that what you have to say is worth listening to.
The majority of problems can be prevented. Before doing business with a client, a supplier or even a colleague try to understand what they need and how they like to work. Ensure that they also know you and how you like to work. Asking questions is the only way to gain this level of understanding. Confirm this understanding with your business partners, to make sure there is no misreading.
Manage expectations and be firm and realistic about your promises. Try not to give any nasty surprises!
Jack Downton is managing director of The Influence Business, a coaching and career development company for professional services businesses.