The centered response

How can employees stay centered and be collaborative when sharing business news that isn’t always rosy?

This website lists the workshops Kenning delivers most frequently. You might call these our “off-the-shelf” programs. But when clients ask for something tailored to their particular situation, we can create a program to meet the need.

An executive recently asked for help preparing his team of marketing managers for Q&A sessions and informal interactions at a national sales conference. So Kenning created an experiential session focused on staying centered and delivering effective responses.

Below, Kenning partner Jerry Stauduhar, one of the creators of the workshop, answers questions about its genesis, development, and impact.

Q: What can you tell us about the client?

A: Our lead client was a senior director of a marketing unit at a large health and medical products companies. His extended team focused on a narrow range of products sold primarily through healthcare providers and pharmacies. The team was preparing for their annual meeting with the sales force, during which they usually discuss new strategies, product enhancements, campaigns, processes, etc., which are all supposed to get the sales folks excited about the coming year.

The trouble was, with changes in healthcare law and government reimbursements, pressures from competition, and pesky supply chain issues, margins had been squeezed and the business was in a state of flux. The path ahead was unclear and the news the marketing team had to deliver to the sales people was not all good.

Q: So what did he ask Kenning to help with?

A: Generally he wanted help preparing his team for their interactions with the sales force over the course of this multi-day meeting. Not so much their formal presentations, since they tend to be informational, with a lot of content pre-baked by senior leadership. But the team anticipated that the news in those presentations would be underwhelming, if not downright discouraging, to their sales colleagues, so they wanted help facing sales people in less planned and informal interactions – Q&A sessions, hallway conversations and such. How could they be better prepared to face the sales force’s toughest questions?

Q: And this is where the tailored workshop approach comes in?

A: Yes, exactly. Given difficult scheduling constraints, we decided the best way to handle this would be a one-day targeted workshop with as many members of the 20-member extended team as possible.

Kenning did not have an off-the-shelf program designed to get at exactly the set of issues our client was facing in this situation, so we knew we would need to tailor something to give them the highest value for their investment of a whole critical day so close to the sales conference.

Q: What did the design of tailored workshop look like?

A: We knew we wanted to keep the program as experiential or practice-oriented as possible, which meant we would need to work in small groups. Th
e Kenning team therefore consisted of four facilitators who all collaborated on its design, along with input from our lead client.

Our analysis of the situation led us to believe that vitruvian with leafthere would be three key elements of responding to difficult questions – a clear message, a collaborative mindset, and a confident physical presence – that the marketing team members would need to master to better face the sales people. We pulled these together into a Centered Response framework built around Da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian man, as a metaphor for a person both fully expanded and perfectly in balance. We would introduce or review some concepts in each of the three areas and then spend the bulk of the time preparing and practicing responses to the tough questions the marketing team anticipated.

Q: Can you tell us more about the elements of the Centered Response framework and how they were put into practice in the workshop?

A: The first was message. The marketing folks needed to anticipate the tough questions they were likely to get and prepare a clear perspective that they could deliver on a particular topic or issue. This usually means one key message or response to a question and a group of two to four related points that support that perspective.

Many of the participants had previously been exposed to this style of top-down communication in our Strategic Communications program. So, in this workshop, we briefly reviewed the concept and then broke into small groups to brainstorm potential questions from the sales force and formulate a clear top-down response to each of them. The groups came together near the end of the module to compare and standardize responses. It was important to ensure that messages delivered to the sales force would be consistent among the marketing team members.

With a clear outgoing perspective in-hand, we next wanted to talk to the marketing folks about the mindset we believe they would need to also carry with them to be most effective with the sales force. Yes, they needed to have a prepared outgoing perspective to give themselves and their listener confidence, but they didn’t have all the answers. They also needed to remain very open to hearing – and possibly learning from – the other person’s perspective. Rather than get defensive when a sales person raised concerns or shared a different perspective in response, they need to take time to truly listen to what the other person said.

This involves what we call “getting up on the balcony” where each person in a conversation makes it clear what they believe and why they believe it so that a higher-level view of the situation becomes available to both parties. In this space, collaborative problem solving becomes possible. Even if you can’t come to a solution on the spot or there isn’t an answer for every question, the sales person will feel that she has been heard and you will have reinforced your relationship with her. Very often, just feeling heard is all the other person needs to accept the solution you are able to offer.

Finally, before giving everyone a chance to role-play some tough questions, we wanted to address how one’s physical presence factors into managing challenging conversations. We called this element of the framework embodiment, and we covered two key skills.

First, we talked about and practiced what it means to be truly physically centered and to radiate a fully expanded presence. The group went through a centering exercise and experimented with striking a super hero pose before an important event (preferably away from other people!) to both feel more powerful yourself and to be perceived as more powerful by the people you meet with.

Once everyone had of sense of what it feels like for him or her to be centered and confident, we then turned our attention to what happens to us physiologically when we perceive a threat or feel stressed. Even though we are not in any physical danger and our rational brain knows that, it’s likely our animal instincts will be triggered instantly in a predictable fight or flight response and we will lose our center. The physiological effects of this response include not only a rise in heart rate and blood pressure and shortness of breath, but also a hampering of the rational portion of the brain. Obviously, this makes it difficult for us to think, remain calm, and to make a mindful response to the perceived threat – in this case, a just a tough question or differing point of view.

However, with conditioning, we can learn to recognize our own fight-or-flight response when triggered and choose not to let it affect how we respond in a given situation. Everyone can learn to quickly remind himself that he is not truly in any physical danger, re-center physically and mentally, and approach the conversation with the collaborative mindset described earlier. So, the group went through an exercise meant to illuminate their particular response to a threat and then practiced re-centering and making a calm, mindful response instead.

For the final exercise of the day, each person had a chance to put all of the elements together in a role-played practice session. Each marketing team member stood up and responded to one of the difficult questions brainstormed earlier in the day as delivered by one of their colleagues role-playing a member of the sales force. As would be our typical practice in such a workshop, each participant had time to not only try his or her response once but to try it, get feedback, and then re-try. Feedback from fellow participants and the facilitators centered on how clearly they delivered the outgoing message, what mindset seemed to be at play as they conducted the interaction, and how their physical presence contributed or detracted from projecting a sense of confidence and ease.

Q: In the end, what was the impact of the workshop? How did the sales conference go for the marketing team?

A: Afterwards, we heard the team was grateful to have had the opportunity to prepare for the meeting in this way. Many of the forces shaping their business are beyond their control and it’s impossible for them or anyone to have all the answers right now. However, the tools they learned in the workshop helped them to deal with uncertainty more confidently and to maintain their personal integrity with the members of the sales force. They felt the time they invested in this workshop truly paid off in their comfort level in facing a sub-optimal sales conference scenario.