Contempt of Conversation

I’ve always enjoyed a good courtroom drama.  The maneuvering – the intrigue – the excitement!  By watching those shows, you can learn a great deal about what to do, and what not to do.  It’s always fascinating to watch when a lawyer is held in contempt of court.  This occurs when a lawyer has been accused of being disrespectful, “in the form of behavior that opposes or defies the authority, justice, and dignity of the court.”  The consequences are a fine, imprisonment, or both.

Sometimes I wish I had the power of a judge, especially when a conversation has gone bad. When I’ve heard enough of a misdirected conversation, I’d like to hold the offender in contempt of conversation.  This would occur when a person acts disrespectfully to a customer, in the form of behavior that opposes or defies the authority, justice, and dignity of his or her profession.  What exactly would fall into the category of contempt of conversation?  Here are three examples:

Leading The Witness 

In a courtroom, when a lawyer utilizes a form of questioning that directs a witness to answer in a way expected by the lawyer, the lawyer can be accused of leading the witness.  It can intimidate, and fluster, a witness. A salesperson can make the same mistake through sloppy questioning that restricts the customer’s responses. The mistake is usually created by asking too many closed questions in a rapid-fire delivery.  It can intimidate and fluster a customer.

Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to avoid being held in contempt of conversation. The key is to open the questions up by using classic open probes.  You might be asking questions that begin with “Do you…?  Are you…?  Will you…? What you need to do is ask questions that begin with, “What…?  How…? Why…?”  When you open your probes up, you don’t create conflict; you create a conversation.

Overloading Questions

In a courtroom, sometimes you’ll see a lawyer attempt to ask a question that is way too detailed and complex.  You’ll see this mistake on display in one of my favorite scenes in the movie, “A Few Good Men.” There’s a wonderful scene with Tom Cruise asking a question that takes so long to ask, the opposing lawyer makes an objection to the judge.  He asks: “Your honor, is there a question anywhere in sight?!”  That same mistake can be made by overloading questions, or combining too many thoughts into one question.  It can confuse and frustrate a customer.

To avoid being held in contempt of conversation, all you need to do is shorten your questions.  Don’t worry about cramming as much as you can into a question.  Instead, try and break up the questions you ask into smaller questions. Your reward will be helping to put the customer at ease because, by making your questions easier to answer, you’re creating a normal, authentic conversation.

Inappropriate Language

Inappropriate language. In a courtroom, when a lawyer disrespects a witness or a member of the court by using unsuitable language, there can be repercussions.  The same mistake can be made when a salesperson belittles the current situation a customer is in.  He or she might challenge the response of a customer, or tell the customer the consequences of his or her actions.

I’m not going to tell you to shy away from difficult situations that may make customers uncomfortable. That’s a responsibility we have to our customers.  However, to avoid being held in contempt of conversation, you must, once again, keep your questions open and display true empathy. Make sure you let the customer paint the picture for you, … and not the other way around!

The next time you’re watching a courtroom drama, you’ll probably pay closer attention to the courtroom scenes. Clearly, no one wants to be held in contempt of court.  The consequences of being held in contempt of conversation aren’t quite as severe as a fine, jail, or both, but you can count on one result.  A lost opportunity.

Related: The Faceoff Between Curiosity And Fear