The Dangers of Simulating Dangerous Situations

We’re very pleased you’ve decided to participate in a professional development exercise with us. You may have some unease about how you will perform under scrutiny while being recorded on video. This is normal, especially for senior people who are more used to asking questions than being questioned.

In fact, among the most valuable services we provide is the simulation of challenging situations and putting participants a little out of their comfort zones. How far out of their zones is appropriate is an open question for each individual to address. We can’t know in advance. The physical fitness analogy is that an athlete wants the micro-tears in muscles in order to build more muscle, but doesn’t want sprains or injury. We make best-efforts to stretch your skills in a safe environment.

Some participants manifest their concerns through administrative tasks. They set expectations and goals, want to refine budgets, ask for agendas and want discussions about methodology. We have addressed all these matters. We publish a fee schedule, agenda and memo to participants describing what experiences they will have with us. Participants can read a book or chapters that are directly related to their needs. They can also listen to a 75 minute CD and watch a half-hour DVD that supports the chosen curriculum.

Within that nearly full disclosure and safety, we want there to be room for customization and surprises. If we could provide an absolutely accurate agenda for your session, this would mean that it was based on the needs of previous attendees. Or it might also mean that we left no room for your unique needs or questions. But we have left this kind of room and will address these items in your session.

By definition, we can’t address your unique needs and questions without seeing you in action in a session. The physical fitness analogy is relevant again. If we were running a stretch and strength class, we’d make sure you warmed up and then would need to see how far you can stretch and how strong you are before determining whether to recommend longer stretches and more reps.

With regard to surprises, it’s worth remembering that the courts, media, legislative committees, regulatory bodies, inquests, stakeholder meetings and other venues don’t provide agendas, pre-facto discussions of expectations and so on. You appear, are questioned and the result follows–a ruling, news story, legislation, approval, agreement and so on. You already know far more about what you will experience with us than you will know in a real-life situation.

To be fair, any unease you may have is reasonable. However, we have some unease as well and we’d like to share it with you so we can customize a session and produce the best results for you.

There can be a disconnect between what each party thinks is an appropriate consulting model. Basically, there are three models:

  1. fee-for-service
  2. co-learners, and
  3. doctor-patient.

In the fee-for-service model a client retains a consultant to produce a report or product within proscribed terms. In the co-learner model, both client and consultant are on a discovery together. In the doctor-patient relationship, the client seeks a diagnosis, prognosis, treatment regime and then follows through with occasional checkups. Some clients have a wealth of experience in a particular field and we are happy to take an assignment in the first category. We always welcome an opportunity to learn and are thus often in the second category simultaneously.

However, most of our work is, by definition, in the doctor-patient category. Few people spend decades in front of legislative and regulatory bodies, work in national newsrooms or in the international bodies we’ve served. We are usually retained to impart the unique perspectives we’ve gained. If you want to steer us toward another model or adjust our focus, please let us know before a session begins or during our research and delivery of messages, crisis plans, simulations or other documents and services.

Another dilemma we sometimes face is with the initial briefing. Once a client signs on, we are sometimes given a briefing that is not shared with every participant. Senior participants sometimes tell us their staff need a particular kind of workout. Sometimes subordinates tell us that the boss has certain challenges and advises us of the kind of workout required. Naturally this puts us in the position of fulfilling this request while possible surprising a participant or vice versa.

Next, we are often given a diagnosis or analysis–shyness, speech challenges, dyslexia, listening skills and so on. These can be self-analysis or diagnosis by colleagues. Most often we find these only partially accurate. We are thus in a position of customizing a session to meet a partially accurate diagnosis. We find it more productive to analyze and customize throughout the session, based on the performance we see. Or we can have pre-session meetings to perform our own diagnosis.

Most importantly, we have to strike a proper balance between being your employee for a time and thus completely supportive of you, and also providing you a professional service that is of the highest value to you. Our professional service must also meet the standards of our professional training, codes of conduct and memberships. Nonetheless, we assure you that your business and the quality of our relationship is of great value to us. Consulting is the life we have chosen and the means by which we have raised our children, paid our bills and enjoyed our own professional development.

Here’s one dilemma in striking the proper balance–how tough should we be in simulated questioning? There is research on this dilemma. Some consultants advocate ringing a bell to signify they are assuming the role of tough questioner or at the start of simulations and then ringing the bell again when the module is over. We find this juvenile and distracting. But please be assured that our simulated questions are designed to reproduce the reality we know from our personal and professional experience. Please also be assured that simulations are designed to give you the most beneficial professional development we can.

And what is our personal and professional experience in simulating questions? You’re retained a leading company, if not the foremost company in this area, so you might expect that our experience is formidable. In terms of witness preparation, our experience includes being examined and cross-examined by leading lawyers, appearing in front of legislative and regulatory bodies many times and handling cases in front of the US Justice Department and retired Supreme Court judges. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been at stake. In inquests, lives have been lost and careers are at stake.

At the UN and in international fora, whether to wage war has hung in the balance and trade deals protecting or threatening millions of jobs have been the topic. In the military it’s been terrorism, nuclear weapons and alliances.

In the media, we have worked on some of the landmark programs–As It Happens, Morningside and The National News. We’ve been interviewed by The New York Times, L’Agence France-Presse, CNBC Europe, BBC, NPR, CBC, CTV, Global, PBS and many others.

So, we feel our reflexes are sharp and continue to be sharpened by our personal and professional experiences in the most challenging situations imaginable.

We recognize that you may not have as acute a need as some of our clients. You probably won’t be appearing at the UN, but city council might be likely. You might not be on the major European and US networks, but regional and local programs are likely. Similarly, your legislative or regulatory matter might not involve hundreds of millions of dollars but will still involve what is a lot of money for you.

Is there a downside to being asked a tougher question or series of questions than you might get in real life? Perhaps, for that moment in training when you feel you’re at the end of your supply lines of information. It’s like being in the gym and trying that last repetition–the one that does you the most good whether you complete it or not.

Almost finally, a word about evaluations. In the training and consulting business they are used mainly to keep track of the contact information of potential future clients, not for the professional development of course leaders. That’s why the ubiquitous question about whether a participant’s “expectations” were met. If expectations were low and were met, we wouldn’t take much solace from that. If they were high and not met, but unreasonable, what can we glean from that feedback?

In terms of our professional development, we seek out certification, skills enhancement and degrees at some of the world’s leading institutions. We are committed to life-long learning, as we hope you are.

We’re not entertainers, striving for applause and re-booking. We are summarizing peer reviewed academic literature on the subject and our personal and professional experiences. Ultimately your session with us is about you and your professional development, not about us. We recommend you do an evaluation, but about a month after the session. After you have reflected on your experiences, consider asking participants the following questions:

  1. Did you use the materials (CD, DVD, book) provided?
  2. Have you watched video of your own performance?
  3. Did you discuss materials or your performance with colleagues?
  4. Did you learning anything new?
  5. Have you retained any of the curriculum?
  6. Have you changed any procedures or attitudes in your work?

Add your own professional development questions and then let’s talk. We’ll be happy to have a debriefing with you when you’ve reflected on your experiences.

So, we’re on your side. We appreciate your business. We work for you. If we simulate a tougher question than you think appropriate in the hot pursuit of the moment, let’s learn from it together.

If you have reason to believe that tough questioning will upset some of your colleagues or is unnecessary, please discuss this before the session and we will do our best to reduce the pressure. Otherwise, let’s stretch ourselves together in a completely private and confidential session.

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