From Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work

Sacred Stalls

No matter how deep a study you make, what you really have to rely on is your own intuition and when it comes down to it, you really don’t know what’s going to happen until you do it.

Konosuke Matsushita

We were a company that brokered highly trained technical human resources. My boss, Angela, and I were to fly to the East Coast to negotiate the renewal of a two-year, $26 million contract with our largest client. It was going to be a memorable day any way you cut it because as the account rep, I stood to either keep my job for the next two years or face the grueling task of finding another one.

I had had several conversations in the previous weeks with the client in which they had tried to cushion us for the fall by saying that not only could they not pay the increase we were asking of them, but that we should voluntarily reduce our fees. My boss had made it clear to them that she had no intentions of backing off from her fee increase. In our private meeting, she had told me that the thing for us to do was to prepare a slide presentation to justify the fee increase.

I was never totally comfortable with this idea because I remembered how strong the client was about needing a fee reduction in order to stay in business with us at all. I feared we could easily end up $26 million poorer.

I tried to diplomatically discuss these fears with my boss, but she was determined. She decided to “make them kowtow” to her for once, instead of the other way around. The picture that came to mind was of a shoot-out in the old corral—you know, the kind with a lot of bloodshed and orphaned children.

We met in a beautiful, mahogany-appointed boardroom. Angela gave the slide presentation, and then she seated herself beside me and across the wide table from the three top managers. I inwardly cringed at the obvious “us and them” seating arrangement.

After 30 minutes of some uncomfortable, “blame-you, defend-me” and then patronizing “blame-me, defend-you” language from both sides, Angela started to cry. I couldn’t believe it! Now what? They apologized, saying it was not their intention to hurt her feelings, but that they had to stand firm in the interest of the future of their company. I could see that they felt manipulated by the tears and were being polite. I could also see we were in the toilet on this one, and that I might be looking for another job real soon.

I asked if we could take a five-minute break. They all thought that was a good idea. Then I asked Angela if she would come with me to the ladies’ room.

Once in the ladies’ room, I asked Angela if I could try something. She said, “Okay, at this point, I don’t think you could do any harm anyway. I’m going outside for some air.” I was thankful for the privacy of a bathroom stall at that moment because I had no clue how to save the day. I put my head in my hands and I prayed. A very wise teacher once said that prayer is simply consciousness asking itself for help. After many years of thinking prayer was for babies, I had given myself permission to pray again. It was such a relief.

I took some deep breaths and allowed my mind to imagine the entire scene ahead of me as I would like it to play out. What I saw was the three of them and the two of us sitting in a circle with our hearts showing through our clothes, beating bright red. I knew in that moment that I needed to keep my awareness on my heart, no matter what else. Then I saw them laughing. The thought of laughter caused me to relax, although I couldn’t imagine what would cause us to laugh like that. Somehow, I felt okay about returning to the group. And I noticed that I could be okay with whatever the outcome might turn out to be.

When we reconvened, I talked about a few loose, mundane business details that needed some discussion. At one point, I slipped and said porpoise instead of purpose and we all laughed. It was the thing that broke the ice. For a few minutes we were all just human beings having a laugh. The slip caused me to remember that one of our consultants had recently been invited by one of the client’s largest customers on a family outing at Sea World. The older couple owned a lab that our consultant had helped design. They had grown close, frequently invited her for dinner and eventually adopted her as the daughter they’d never had. The client was very interested in this story. I mentioned that this was only one of the multitude of stories of how our consultants were having a great life on the road, developing community around the country with their customers.

After a few minutes of more stories, I noticed how the energy in the room had softened. At that moment, we were simply reflecting on the good times, and everyone in the room was enjoying themselves.

Then I laughed and said, “You didn’t know you were financing community and ‘family’ reunions, did you?”

The vice president said, “Marty, if sponsoring family reunions gets me more business, then I’m in the business of sponsoring family reunions. Why don’t you go back to your office and work up the numbers for me. If you can prove that replacing your stellar team of consultants would cost us more in the long run, I’ll sign this contract at your present rates. How’s that for a good compromise?”

It felt like a miracle had just happened. And what’s even more amazing is that when Angela and I had a debriefing session about the trip, I was offered a promotion to vice president—and a raise, to boot!

Marty Raphael

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