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​Don't Keep Talking

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Recently, I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine. Unfortunately, as these things are wont to do nowadays, the conversation turned to politics. We agree on some things, we disagree on others, but, as happens so often when a conversation’s fancy lightly turns to politics, that conversation became a bit … oh, for lack of a better word we’ll go with the cliché “heated.”

His part of the conversation began to turn rant-like. (And that is not meant as an insult. Our conversations often turn impassioned — there it is, a much better word than heated — we both rant and we know it. We’ve been friends and co-workers a long time, meaning we feel safe in calling each other out when necessary and are similarly amenable to being called out. That is the way the relationship has always worked. When we were in internal audit together, we made an agreement. If one of us was talking too much and the other was trying to get something done, we were permitted to tell the other to shut up. Hard to find friends with which you can be that honest. Anyway, back to the story.)

As the rant continued, I started to make comments. (I interrupt; it is a problem I recognize; I promise to get better, honest.) He would shut me down because he was trying to lay out his argument. A reasonable request and, after being shut down a few times, I realized I needed to be quiet and listen.

Which I could not do. Don’t get me wrong, I was able to shut up. But I could not listen to the argument that was being made.

You see, the problem with the logical flow he was developing was that it was all based on a foundation that I found fundamentally flawed. My interruptions were meant to stop the logical argument he was building in order to go back and rehash his original premise. He could lay out all the logic he wanted, but I wasn’t going to accept it because too many of his foundational concepts were — in my equally inadequately informed opinion — wrong.

And when he got done, he felt better because he had laid out his argument, and I just felt exhausted and frustrated because I had suffered the tirade with no recourse. And we had gained no ground, changed no minds, moved the needle neither left nor right. We had gone, effectively, nowhere. He was where he had begun as he laid out the argument, and I couldn’t accept the foundation for his arguments, so all the logic that followed edified me not.

When you are laying out the aspects of your audit — discussing the potential risks, talking about effective controls, outlining objectives of the audit and area under review, discussing the final report — pay attention to the others in the conversation. Do they even agree with the premises upon which your argument/discussion begins?

We were doing work over the claims department’s call centers. We had invested a solid month. A month may not seem like much in the internal audit world, but we had four auditors working on that single project the entire time, plus others providing periodic support. It was a pretty hefty investment.

We began the conference call with the client to discuss our preliminary findings (this was a project that was intended to go on for another month or two). Our first slide presented our understanding of the department’s customer service objectives. The client went ballistic and said we had no idea what we were talking about, shut down the meeting, and effectively shut down the audit.

Looking back, there were a number of reasons why we got this reaction. (Immediate lesson learned: Make sure your client even wants the work done in the first place. Yeah, obvious. Yeah, we assumed that’s what we had. No, it didn’t work out too well.) But it was a perfect example of the client not even accepting our basic premises.

We never had a chance to cover any of the materials with the client because that basic understanding and agreement upon which our discussions were based was not present.

When we are working with the client to come to conclusions — such things as what are the risks, where are the controls, what would you say you do around here — we have to make sure we have agreement on the foundations of our discussions.

Don’t move forward just assuming agreement. And don’t bully forward with the idea that the obviousness of your logical argument will sway them. Unless you get that point-by-point agreement at the beginning, your work will wind up being worth nothing. Before you start talking about which direction to go, make sure you are all starting from the same space.

Which brings up an interesting question: Do you even know what the underpinnings are for your arguments/assertions/discussions? Do you know the assumptions and premises upon which your discussions are based? Because, if you don’t know, then how are ensuring the client agrees? Or are you just moving blithely forward under the assumption that all is well?

Warning. That way be dragons.

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