Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

The Talk No One Wants to Have

“It’s time we have the talk,” I said.

“What talk?” Michael asked, knowing exactly what talk I was referring to.

“You know, the Define the Relationship Talk.”

He groaned. This talk, better knows as the DTR, carries more trepidation than going to your annual check-up right after a bachelorette weekend in Vegas.

However, this particular DTR had nothing to do with romance. Michael was my client. He’d been leading me on for 8 months and I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was seeing other consultants without any intention to commit. To any of us.

“I feel like you don’t value the time we’ve put into this,” I said, frustrated. Michael and I had met up for multiple happy hours to scope out long term project engagements. My brain had dreamt up our future together on a dozen different bar napkins. I was excited about the potential deal, he seemed excited about our creative collective, but, sadly, no contract was ever consummated. I asked him what our status was.

“Er, I just don’t know if it’s the right time for a long term partnership,” he said, fidgeting on his stool. “But next year I’m sure there will be an opportunity. Let’s enjoy a martini now and promise to stay in touch.”

“Jesus Michael. With you it’s just cocktails and cold showers.” I said. “I like you, but I’m going to have to move on so I can get some action.”

It was time to relegate Michael to the friend zone and turn my focus (and escalating alcohol tolerance) to more promising partnership opportunities.

The hardest part of my job isn’t getting others to say yes, it’s making myself say no. I have to, because others won’t.

In any relationship, we want things to succeed. We get enamored by new possibilities and daydream about building a life together. Everyone keeps saying ‘yes’ because saying ‘no’ is not just uncomfortable, it’s also risky. Most want to preserve their options for as long as possible and, if they can, get the proverbial ‘milk for free.’

In romantic relationships hearts are on the line. In business relationships egos are on the line. Not to mention a lot of money. Regardless of commitment ability, everyone wants to remain ‘the good guy.’ Potential clients/customers/partners will lead you on for as long as you’ll drink gin. Sometimes our dedication pays off and our respective companies will fall in love. Other times we are only rewarded with a failing liver and a collection of venn diagrams scrawled on the back of envelopes.

If you feel things are stuck in the gray zone, then it’s time to have the talk. Business partnerships take perseverance, and both sides need to be committed. If the other party isn’t, it’s time to direct your attention toward developing new, more productive relationships. Honey, you deserve better. So does your firm.

For me, “the talk” entailed two difficult conversations. One was with Michael to determine the go / no-go status. As it was a clear no-go, the second hard conversation was facing my team to tell them I just couldn’t ‘make it happen.’ Saying I cannot close a deal as a business development “expert” felt like telling them I had a house at a ski resort but didn’t know how to ski. I was worried that I’d look pathetic and worse, really disappoint them. Nothing like admitting failure to beef up my business vulnerability muscles. I only hoped they’d understand.

Head low, I told my team that our dream project was not going to happen due to commitment phobia. Surprisingly, they had seen it long before I did.

“We are so happy you are standing up for yourself,” one said.

“Yeah he was kinda like a lingering lover who would only see you at 1am,” said another.

“Don’t worry, we’ll find something else.”

Thank God, I didn’t let it go on for longer or I would be “that Biz Dev lead.” Optimism is good for business. Disillusionment isn’t. I didn’t want to eternally refer to Michael as ‘the one that got away.’ If I was honest with myself, no deal ‘got away’ if I never had it in the first place. Both Michael and my team respected me more for my candor. If things changed, we could start afresh from a base of mutual trust.

The DTR wasn’t easy so I stole a few lessons from my failed romantic relationships. After all, limbo thwarts both business and love.

DTR // Steps for Calling it Quits

  1. Listen. Are they in or are they out? If they waver, listen to their rationale. Are there issues with timing, funding, politics? Be empathetic. If you have a good relationship, they’ll be honest with you.
  2. Ask how you can help. Often times we can provide our clients with creative solutions that address their concerns, such as giving them supportive materials to gain buy-in. But after you offer help, follow up to see if they actually use it to pave the way to partnership.
  3. Cut through the bullshit. Focus on actions, not words. No one wants to be the bad guy in a breakup. In good relationships, partners come clean with their intent. In gray ones, you’ll be fed lines so that they can ‘leave the door open’ and never say no. If you spend all of your energy holding their door open, you’ll never muster the strength to open up new ones.
  4. Tell them how you feel, diplomatically and concisely. Highlight the shared benefits and success metrics. Tell them that if they are not able to move forward then you’ll have to politely end discussions on this deal as you are concerned about wasting their time and yours. Not to mention wasting your respective livers. Trust me, they’ll respect you for this.
  5. Explain the outcomes to your team. Admit defeat heroically. Explain why you are ending the relationship (for now) and present other potential opportunities to be excited about.

Moving on is never easy but it is crucial to long term success. An “end” isn’t failure. Rather, it is the start of something new. Have the talk. Make a clean cut. And expand your vision to see new opportunities on the horizon.

“Can’t say I’ve ever been too fond of beginnings, myself. Messy little things. Give me a good ending anytime. You know where you are with an ending.”

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones

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