The Warm-Up Before the Work-Out

The best reaction may be no reaction - at least immediately.

The best reaction may be no reaction – at least immediately.

Thinking on your feet is one of the hardest things you’ll do as a professional. In fact, what comes out of your mouth will either reinforce others’ impression of you as a professional or an amateur. To increase the likelihood that your words are accurate, smooth and complete, it’s worth warming up. Just like vigorous exercise without a warm-up increases the risk of injury, so opening your mouth without practicing what you’ll say increases the risk that you will put your foot in that very same mouth.

Consider these four examples of being taken off-guard:

Example #1: A parent pulls you aside during registration or morning drop-off and launches into a diatribe about how the two camp T-shirts she bought for her daughter last week are now fraying at the seams, after just one wash. She wants her money back and two free replacement shirts.

Example #2: A staff member tells you on the last day of staff training week that he was just offered an internship at an investment bank in New York City. He says he’d rather be at camp, but his parents are insisting he take the internship. Opening day is tomorrow, but he’s decided to leave camp and take the banking job.

Example #3: A colleague you entrusted with some confidential information has shared it with a younger staff member. Your efforts to help the director of a neighboring summer program overcome an alcohol problem over with winter are now widely known among your staff.

Example #4: A camper you barely know comes up to you after lunch and asks, “Would you want to know if a counselor had broken the rules?” You nod, stupefied. “The thing is,” continues the camper, “it’s not my counselor and I don’t want him to get in trouble.”

The temptation to reply quickly to a parent, a staff member, a colleague or a camper is great. In our minds, we sometimes fallaciously equate speed with smarts. We think that if we have something immediate to say, then it must be witty, pertinent, correct or all three. Not so.

Often the wisest reply is silence; quiet time during which you reflect and rehearse. The earth will continue to revolve on its axis, I promise. Better still, the people on the earth—including you—will be able to flex their verbal muscles without pulling anything. The warm-up is worth it.

Consider these plausible preps, corresponding to examples 1-4 above.

#1 (Angry Parent): I wonder whether there are other things that are bothering this parent? Is the complaint really about the shirts, or is it something else? Is the wholesale expense of two shirts worth the benefit of this parent walking away happy? Did I choose my clothing vendor wisely? I wonder whether other families are dissatisfied with their camp T-shirts. Maybe it’s a blessing that this mom has spoken up. How else would I have discovered we have a problem? T-shirts are a powerful marketing device, but not if they look like crap. What else could I offer this parent to cool her hot temper? How can I make this right and show this family what great customer service we have?

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