Associate conundrums: To speak up or not to speak up

Associate conundrums

You’re in a client meeting with a partner. You’re following their lead, taking the role of first officer. It’s all going according to plan. Without any warning, the partner says something which you disagree with and you fear could negatively impact the whole deal. You know that you have a limited window of opportunity to do something. Do you speak up or do you remain silent and run the risk of that silence being taken as agreement?

Partners are human. Humans make mistakes. If you were in an operating theatre or a flight deck, not speaking up could end very badly. The legal profession, like aviation and medicine, has a hierarchy that can make it harder for those lower down the pecking order to speak up, especially in front of clients.

A deference to perceived authority can get in the way of the open honest addressing of errors and can potentially prove very costly.

So, what is the best way to deal with the situation?

Firstly, an element of intuitive judgement has to be used as to the importance of what has been said and whether it needs to be addressed immediately, and therefore in front of clients, or after the meeting.

Secondly, is the partner in question someone who will happily accept that they are fallible and will be grateful for your intervention or are they type of person who does not readily embrace being told they might be wrong?

Either way, if you handle the situation adeptly it can make you a more valuable member of the team (get it wrong and you the reverse may become the case). You need to gauge who you are dealing with as far as the client is concerned and how well they know the partner. This will inform how you raise your concern and the type of language you use.

It is extremely important that you do not undermine the partner’s credibility and that you use language that is positive and not in any way accusatory or critical. It is a case of being ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘yes, but’.

Depending on the situation, there may be an opportunity to write your concern down and simply pass that on, or in a negotiation for example there is always the ability to ask for a moment with your team. If neither of those situations present themselves then do remember that you need to make a judgement as to the importance of the situation and whether it needs to be addressed immediately, refrain from using negative language and limit any potential damage by turning what has been said into a positive message.

If you know that something is simply incorrect, there is no harm in opening up along the lines of ‘I may be wrong here but…’ – this being a very polite way of alerting your concern with someone more senior without coming in heavy-handed.

Whatever you decide, you need to be confident, to the point and upbeat and ensure that you are not humiliating anyone. At least your decisions do not have life or death consequences.

Luan de Burgh of the de Burgh Group is a professional public speaker and presentation coach.