The Warm-Up Before the Work-Out

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?

#2 (Quitting Staff): The pressures on this young man must be intense. In addition, I’m disappointed that these parents are implicitly endorsing his reneging on a signed contract. What does that say about his integrity? What would a future employer—including this investment bank—think about his failure to fulfill a professional promise? I don’t want a staff member to stay unless his head and his heart are in the game, but I also want to find a way to express my deep disappointment. What could I do in the future to prevent similar situations with other talented staff? People should follow their dreams, but not at the expense of team members to whom they have promised a certain amount of work. How will I fill this empty staff position? Should I over-hire from now on, just as a contingency?

#3 (Breach of Confidentiality): This feels like a double betrayal. I shared private information with a colleague and now she’s gone and blabbed it. I shouldn’t have said anything to anyone, but I thought I could trust my colleague. How can I clean up this mess? How can I even get angry at my colleague when she’s guilty of the same violation I am? I should tell the director of the neighboring camp that his secret is not so secret after all. Might any good come of this? I need to own this and apologize to my director friend, but I’m terrified at what he might say…and I’m furious at my own colleague. How will this affect my reputation and the reputation of my camp? How am I to understand my own need to share someone else’s personal struggles?

#4 (Counselor Trouble): This child knows something that is potentially inflammatory; maybe even dangerous. I’ve got to protect this child and create a safe space so that he feels comfortable sharing what he knows. In my heart, I believe the child wouldn’t have come to me if he didn’t want me to know and to act on what I know. I understand the ambivalence he must be feeling. At the same time, I know that nothing is more important at camp than maintaining the highest quality relationship between my staff and the young people they serve. I have a moral obligation to act, but I can’t come on like gangbusters. That might backfire and then I’ll never know what’s really going on.

If these sample contemplations sparked some additional ideas, then you’ve gained traction on a difficult skill. You’re already more likely to respond thoughtfully to the next surprising or dismaying disclosure. It might only take 5 seconds, but were it not for a bit of reflection, you might have said the following:

•To the angry mom: “Hey, it’s a T-shirt, not a tuxedo. A frayed seam won’t kill your kid.”

•To the quitting staff: “You entitled little turd! It’s so very Generation Y of you to act so capriciously.”

•To the gossiping colleague: “Damn you for disrespecting someone’s confidentiality. How would you like me to share some juicy bits about you with the rest of the staff?”

•To the concerned camper: “Everyone breaks the rules some of the time. Why don’t you head down to free swim now and let me worry about running the camp.”

So obviously unskilled are these replies that it’s laughable. So common are they that it’s unfortunate. And so easily revised are they that it’s encouraging. With a little time, perspective and silent musing, you can express yourself with confidence. And if the zinger comes in an e-mail or a voice mail, you’ll have even more time to think about—and write down—some talking points. The warm-up before the work-out is management gold.

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training.

Next time your blind-sided, get busy shutting up before you shout out.