Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Fine Art of Biting Your Tongue

Quite a few years ago while attending a meeting in the United Arab Emirates, I was also asked to do a site inspection for the Super Bowl of Rotax Go Carts (they claimed to be as big as NASCAR internationally) in nearby Al Ain. I confess I had never heard of this, but it sounded intriguing. Never one to dismiss an opportunity, I sallied forth and made some complicated arrangements to meet an elusive client. He was hard to reach and when we did talk there was a lot of wind noise going on.

I was escorted by limo about two hours out of Abu Dhabi into the desert where we saw some great museums and palaces and even the racing camel market and finally arrived at... well, more desert with just a temporary trailer-type of building. I knocked on the door. No one answered, so I called the cell number I was given. No answer. We drove around looking for anything or anyone other than sand. Nothing. So, we drove back to the building. Finally, in the distance, I could see a Porsche racing toward me. In a flurry of dust, it came to a stop right where I was standing. And out of it, a young man. Gorgeous. Looked like the dictionary definition of a race car driver - tight jeans, tight t-shirt, glistening smile. And wind-blow hair which explained why our conversations were always noisy.

We shook hands. I mentally drooled a lot. We entered the "building." I began to ask about the event. Where was it going to be? He waved at the sand. How are you going to be ready in a few months? He shrugged. What would you like to accomplish for this event, and how can we help you?

"Just fill in what I don't have here and make this an event comparable to a Super Bowl... exciting... fabulous."

Music to my ears. But I've heard those words before. What's the budget?

"There are no limits."

Uh-huh. Heard those words before, too. So, a million dollars would be okay?

I revived him.

I asked for an example of what he thought was a wow. He started with lasers, but told me that there were hundreds of laser companies nearby, so there was no need for me to look for those. Hundreds? I told him that anytime anyone I knew had worked in his part of the world that lasers had been brought in from the U.S. or Europe. And then I realized what he meant and knew that he had no idea what he was talking about. But I couldn't resist asking, Where are you finding all these hundreds of companies"

And he told me, "In the phone book."

I replied Show me, please," very politely, of course.

He opened up the directory (aka phone book) and showed me. I said quietly, without cracking a smile, You're looking under laser surgery. Then I immediately started talking about what other things we could do in which he might be interested.

The Lesson
It's impolite to disable people and not take them seriously, especially if they are inexperienced. It's particularly important not to embarrass or make them feel uncomfortable. It's up to us to educate kindly, just do our jobs and not laugh uproariously at some of the things we hear!

And this doesn't just apply to the inexperienced. It's a good policy no matter with whom you are dealing. During the 1988 Special Event in Los Angeles at the Bonaventure Hotel, the hotel's Director of Catering (name withheld to protect the guilty), was serving as the event team committee chair. He called a meeting at the hotel, and everyone involved in the convention attended. I made what I thought was an appropriate suggestion to better the conference. Instead of taking it under consideration, he reamed me, dressed me up one side and down the other in front of all my peers. We all sat in stunned silence. (And anyone who knows me understands I am never at a loss for words. Some people are always thinking "Oh, I wish I had been quick enough to answer" but I NEVER have THAT problem. I always know exactly what I want to say.) At first, all I wanted to do was produce the perfect comeback to embarrass him in front of all. My second thought was to yell "F**K YOU!" but that would have been unprofessional, so I smiled like a lady and carried on as part of the committee. Afterward, everyone said they didn't know how I sat through it but confessed they saw each of us for who we truly were. Years later and everyone still remembers that interchange and how I handled it. So, no matter what you want to say to a client or an associate, you will always win if you bite your tongue and behave like a professional.

I have experienced some similar episodes since, and I continue to be silent. Silence is the most powerful tool we all have and, when used correctly, will almost always empower the one who is silent. I learned this from an expert in the art of buying a vehicle. When the zealous salesperson makes an offer, remain silent and just look him (or her) in the eye. That person will usually keep dropping the price (because they are uncomfortable) until you get to where you want to be and speak up for the first time.

Another approach, particularly if you are in conflict with someone who is ranting and raving, is what I call the board game analogy. If you are playing a game with someone and pick up your pieces and walk away, they can't play anymore. Game over. That's my philosophy. Walking away disempowers that person. Use it only when you must.

Andrea Michaels is founder and president of Extraordinary Events, a multi-award-winning international event agency based in Los Angeles. Andrea is the author of Reflections of a Successful Wallflower: Lessons in Business; Lessons in Life and an in-demand speaker and leading voice in the special events industry. She may be reached via

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