After years of prevarication, Andy has pledged to write a book. Called ‘Letters to My Children’ the book is shaping up as a mix of autobiography, homespun philosophy, business experience and money advice, written as a guide to life for Andy’s five children. Here’s the next chapter, we hope that you enjoy it too.
The Curse of Reasonableness
“Don’t you dare put the f***ing phone down on me!” demanded my customer.
Click. Dialling tone.
We come from a reasonable family. None of us like to hurt anyone else’s feelings. I can remember many times when each of us has agonised over whether we’ve said the right thing, whether the other person will be offended or get the wrong idea. And it’s a characteristic that I applaud.
If you are reasonable, it’s hard for people to argue with you. And the moment that your conversation turns into an argument is the moment that the argument is lost. As soon as someone digs into their position and their tone changes from “convince me” to “I’m going to convince you!” everything that they utter is more likely to prove to them the validity of their case and close their mind to the merits of yours. And a closed mind says “no!”
That’s why I’ve found that it pays to be reasonable, and to be seen to be reasonable. If you are going to make progress with your points and carry the day it helps to demonstrate that you aren’t irretrievably attached to them. So you’ll hear me saying things like, “Now I can’t be certain about what I’m about to say, but this is my understanding. What do you think?”
It was Socrates who said, “The more I know, the more I realise that I know nothing,” and that’s been true for me, too. In our contemporary information rich, multifaceted and multi-opinionated world, what you know can only ever be a tiny fraction of what there is to know. My advice is that, even when you think you know the answer, be open to learning. You will invariably find that there is something that you missed.
There are times, however, when reasonableness can be a curse. Every now and again you will come across someone who is completely unreasonable. Their unreasonableness may manifest itself as a complete unwillingness to give your views and opinions any credence whatsoever, or it may show up in the form of a person who thinks that shouting and aggression is the way for them to get what they want.
The problem with the first of these is that they often masquerade as perfectly reasonable people. Gavin Walters was one of these.
Gavin approached me because he had some money to invest, and he and his wife came along to meet with me to discuss their situation. He wanted to plan for retirement, he told me, and to make the best use of the money that he had available. He explained that he had chosen our company specifically because we worked on a fee basis, and he didn’t trust those advisers who operated solely on commission. It sounded reasonable enough.
The problem was, when it came to accepting the recommendations that we had made after spending many hours creating his plan, it became obvious that telling us that he wanted to pay a fee and actually extracting money from him were two different things. He challenged everything that we had proposed, wanted to review every recommendation, and raised detailed questions that examined the minutiae of our advice. I now question whether he ever had any intention of going ahead. He certainly didn’t want to pay to do so.
On reflection, the signals were there at an early stage and I failed to acknowledge them. My advice to you if you want to avoid such situations is to test the other person’s reasonableness before you enter into a relationship with them. I’ve learned that it’s perfectly okay to ask questions such as, “How will you know whether we’ve done a good job for you?”, “What other information might you need before you go ahead with our recommendations” and, crucially, “How and when do you intend to pay for our services?” Rather than looking for reasons to enter into a relationship, change your mindset to one where you are seeking reasons not to. I’ve also found that asking people for money in advance is a great test of whether they’re prepared to honour their obligations.
Of course, from Gavin’s point of view he was being perfectly reasonable. It was I who failed to spot that his view of reasonableness was significantly different from mine, and I’ve tried not to fall into the same trap since.
The second form of unreasonableness, shouting and aggression, is much easier to spot. Mr Phillips demonstrated it in spades.
It was when my main business was car insurance, and Mr Phillips had a reason to be upset. His car had been damaged several weeks before, and the insurance company were doing their best to give the impression that they didn’t care a fig. Mr Phillips didn’t understand the system, and his frustration was mounting. When he first came on the phone that frustration was reaching a crescendo.
The conversation had started reasonably well, with him demanding to know what was happening with his car and when it would likely be repaired. I had to explain that, as the intermediary between him and his insurance company I couldn’t give him any information now, and that I was waiting to hear from the claims department. “You people have got my f***ing car and I want it back!” he demanded in a tone that showed he meant business, starting a verbal tirade that rapidly escalated in volume and degree of obscenity. I realised that I needed to deal with his aggression immediately if we were to make any progress.
“I can’t help you if you are going to speak to me like that,” I told him.
“I’ll speak to you however I f***ing well like!” he shouted down the line.
“If you won’t calm down and stop swearing I’m going to put the phone down!” I explained as calmly but firmly as I could. When his next sentence began with “F*** “ I did what I had promised.
I’d been in this situation before. I knew he would ring back straightaway. He did.
“Don’t you dare put the f***ing phone down on me!” he shouted down the line.
Click. Dialling tone.
When the phone rang again I got in first. “I will help you as soon as you calm down and stop swearing!” I told him as assertively as I could. “I am f***ing calm!” he yelled. I called his bluff and waited.
And waited. There was silence. I wasn’t sure what was coming next. I heard Mr Phillips take a deep breath on the other end of the phone.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. I paused before I spoke. “Apology accepted,” I responded. “I’m trying to do the best I can for you. Can we move on?”
Unfortunately not all such encounters end this way. However, if you’re going to manage the situation you need to show that you have your own rules, and you are going to stick to them regardless of the other person’s position.
There haven’t been many times when I have faced the threat of physical aggression from another person, which is why those occasions when it happened remain vivid in my memory. It was clear to me that the person threatening me believed that it was the way to get his way, almost certainly because that is what he had been taught when he was growing up. If I was going to deal with the situation, I needed to acknowledge his anger but to point out to him that it wouldn’t change the situation.
On the most notable occasion, my protagonist was threatening to attack me and my property unless he got his way. I was scared of what he might do, and I told him so.
“But even though I’m scared of you,” I told him, “it’s not going to make any difference. If you want to get what you say you want, you are going to have to play by my rules. If you don’t like that, that’s your decision. But I’m not going to change my mind, regardless of what you say or do.”
As soon as I told him that I was scared of him, his anger started to dissipate. I had acknowledged his strength, but also tried to make him realise that if he used it, things would only get worse. When our conversation finally ended, I won’t say that we were the best of friends, but I had felt able to build a small bridge of understanding between us. I had felt his frustration, and had acknowledged that he was responding in the best way that he knew how.
And, hopefully, he had started to realise that I was trying to be reasonable.
With all my love,