Back in my lawyer days at the Securities & Exchange Commission, I got pretty good at taking investigative testimony. So, the powers that be started assigning me to the newbies to help them develop the “craft” of investigative conversation. Which was pretty funny, because at that point, I was only a few years in.
Now these conversations were a bit different than most. They happened in small, interior offices, often caked with decades of paint over cinderblock. Under the din of fluorescent lights and the click-clack of a court reporter, witnesses would come to bare their souls under the veil of secrecy.
Our invited guests were people about whom we were informally or sometimes formally “inquiring” and, if they had any smarts, even the ones who were innocent came with counsel.
Our job was to get to the truth. Fierce preparation, laser-focused listening and responsive questioning were the main tools of our craft. You couldn’t get to where we needed to get without all three.
But, one of the things I learned early on was the first item was the one you had to walk away from to allow the second two to work their magic.
One day, I ended up alongside a young enforcement attorney to whom I’d been assigned at the last minute. We’d taken a flight to Chicago to take testimony from the CEO of a public company. As I’d learn on the plane, she’d prepared for more than a month. Wonderful, I thought, this should be an easy day for me.
Two hours later, we sat in the confined box of a room. My colleague sat down opposite the witness and counsel, I to her side. She then proceded to whip out a monster 3-inch black binder that had been collated, coded, tabbed and annotated. An ode to OCD embodied. Fantastic I thought, not a stone left unturned.
On the record, came the call, and we were off. To which the black binder fell open…and the verbatim reading began.
Hello, I heard my colleague say, I’m So-and-So from the SEC, today we’ll be blah blah blah. Great, all the standard required language out of the way. Good that she read it, so we don’t have any weaknesses on the standard warnings.
What lovely weather we’re having in Chicago, she then shared. Huh? It was freezing cold and hailing. The next 15 minutes elicited the usual identification, job, background stuff. Then it was time to dive into the juicy part. Who did what, when, how, why and to whom.
But, something was off…
My colleague began asking questions, directly, word-for-word from the giant black ode-to-OCD binder. I glance at opposing counsel, who’s now chuckling. Realizing he had a newb sitting across, he dropped his shields, raised his copy of the Trib and allowed his client to ramble.
Minutes in, the witness dropped a bomb. My colleauge didn’t even notice. She’d become so wed to the script she prepared, she stopped actually listening and responding the moment we went on the record. I let it ride to see if maybe I was wrong and she’d planned to circle back. Didn’t happen.
Twenty minutes later, bomb number two. And, just like before, my colleague danced past it.
Off the record, I announced, letting the court reporter and other side know we’d be stepping out for a moment.
May I see your binder? I asked my colleague outside earshot. She offered it. Now, here’s a piece of paper, I said, please write down the 5 most important things you’d like to know about. She did. Now write down a single question to start the conversation around each point. Done.
Okay, I said, let’s go back into the room. Great, she replied, my binder please?
Take the piece of paper, ask the first question…then listen like you’ve never listened before.
Waves of panic. Anxiety. But off we went.
It was a bit of a rough start. But what began as a disaster turned into a brilliant, illuminating conversation. The truth was had.
So, why do you care?
Because preparation, intense study is important. But it’s equally important to release yourself from the rigid framework of that preparation when it comes time to dance. To go off-script. To listen like you’ve never listened before. To watch like your eyesight depended on catching every last flicker of light. And to respond not to what you’ve prepped for, but what’s in front of you.
Because that’s where the magic happens. When release yourself from the blinders of what you think will happen into the reality of what is happening. Then live into that.
Or, like Charlie Parker once said…
“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”
Curious, have you ever surrendered to the moment in this way?
If so, what happened?
Jonathan Fields is a serial-entrepreneur, business strategist, speaker and author. His latest book is Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel For Brilliance. Fields writes about performance-mindset, innovation, leading and entrepreneurship at JonathanFields.com