When to Walk Away

When to Walk Away

Last month at TED2006 I had dinner with a leader of a major technology company, and we discussed the Big Task Summit my firm is hosting in April. On behalf of our clients Kaiser Permanente, Safeway, and Dupont, we’re inviting leaders from 30 other companies to share in some significant research focused on reducing corporate healthcare costs and increasing employee wellness funded by these companies. This executive suggested I invite one of her co-founders, saying, “He really does care about these issues.”

The next day I was excited to see the co-founder and to make him what I thought was a generous offer of joining this select group of CEOs engaged around such important healthcare and shareholder issues. I approached him and said, “I’ve been looking for you today. Last night I had dinner with [your co-founder] and…” Before I could say another word, he interrupted, in a totally condescending tone. “Well, con-grat-u-lations.” Then he and two associates who were with him burst into laughter.

I instantly felt unwelcome and foolish. I wondered what I had done wrong to elicit such a reception. And, as with any time someone acts like a jerk to you and catches you by surprise, I wondered what should I do?

Grin and bear it or walk away?

There have been many times when I’ve met a potential client or other business contact who didn’t make me feel all that welcome and I’ve just endured the pain until the interaction was over. So I could have just let them laugh and continued the conversation. Another option was to tell him off. I could give him a piece of my mind and let him know that even though he didn’t know me by sight, I am, in fact, quite good friends with a large number of his intimates. But that really wasn’t the point. I thought better to myself, “Keith, it’s not worth it. Just walk away.” And, in the midst of their laughter, I did–much to the surprise of the group assembled.

Give people the benefit of the doubt.

We all act inappropriate at times, for whatever reason, so it’s important that even in cases so bad they warrant you walking away, you don’t give up all hope in the person. Remember that most people who act like jerks are actually just scared and putting up a wall to protect themselves. Deep down, they can be good people, too.

As I walked away from that guy at the conference, however insensitive and full-of-himself he had acted toward me, I thought, “I’m sure he’s not really a jerk at heart. He probably wrestles with as many insecurities as the rest of us do. Maybe he just happened snap with me today.” It turns out I was right.

Don’t retaliate and you can turn a negative into a positive.

I knew my walking away must have rocked him when I saw him approaching me later. I was talking with three good friends we actually have in common, and he said, “I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by what I said earlier.”

Ah, another potential turning point in the infancy of our relationship. I could reject the apology on instinct, telling him I didn’t think he was sorry at all. I could remind him of the now-obvious fact that we have many strong mutual friends. Or I could handle it with a bit more class, as difficult as it might be. What would you do?

I thanked him for the apology, and I also gave him the additional gift of explaining how he had made me feel earlier. In the end, I felt a bond between us for my respectfully standing up for myself but not lashing out and for his sincerely apologizing.

Starting over, I invited him to the Big Task Summit in April and later followed up with an e-mail. I’ll see what happens, but, thankfully, I don’t think I’ll have to walk away from him again.

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