My department’s annual holiday party was, for me, fun to attend and fun to plan. I was a manager in the middle of my career, and I led the committee of staff volunteers—appropriately named the Fun Committee—who organized it. Eighty of us, from the director on down, filled a cozy Spanish restaurant in Lower Manhattan that was all ours for the night. The aroma of great food drew each arrival into the dark, intimate restaurant.
After the rest of the department made their way through the buffet line and found seats, it was finally time for the committee members to grab a plate. I piled as much seafood, rice and beans, and plantains as could possibly fit and then peered in the dim light for an empty seat. The table where most of our executives had congregated was not my first choice; they would most likely be talking shop. Then I saw an empty seat beside Linda, who beckoned me to sit next to her. I sat down and had just put my fork to my plate when Linda leaned in and whispered in my ear.
"Carl, who picked this dump?"
I kept my first thoughts to myself—indeed, they cannot even be repeated here. Instead, I put my fork down, looked at her, and calmly told her that we had considered a number of restaurants, including the same one as last year, but people wanted to try something different. "A Chinese place on Broadway could give us their backroom, but it would be cramped," I said. "Someone had a baby shower here, and everyone liked the food, and they offered us the whole place." In the same matter-of-fact tone, I added, "Let’s talk in the office if you have suggestions for next year."
"Oh," Linda replied. That was it.
In the dim lighting, I couldn’t tell how she took my answer. She was not heard from again on the subject, so I never found out if she enjoyed the party. It was otherwise a complete success as far as any other comments were concerned.
When we met the next week, I told the rest of the Fun Committee what Linda had said. Henry flinched, perhaps fearful that her comment would reach our director. "Oh my God, Carl! What did you say to her?"
It bothered me to see how affected he was. Someone pointed out that the most critical people often don’t suggest anything themselves, and sure enough, Linda never suggested another place for next year.
It’s hard to keep your cool when someone gets "in your face," especially when it’s a colleague or a superior. I was right to stifle the immediate inclination to push back. Instead, I showed my thought process. This is often the only defense—indeed, it makes you what we might call "bulletproof." It defuses the issue, and if the other person is sincere, you might even get some good feedback that can improve your process the next time. "Am I missing something here?" and "What should we have done differently?" can turn a confrontation into a conversation. If you immediately turn defensive, you may never recover the relationship—even at a holiday party!