Regardless of the setting... everything stops when someone throws a chair.

Like the time I attended a customer meeting with a client. His customer was responsible for a major chunk of his firm's annual revenue, so my client brought along six key staffers, including one recently hired engineer.

While originally scheduled as a project update meeting, the CEO of his customer's firm clearly saw it as an opportunity to throw his weight around. Even I could tell his complaints ranged from picky to irrelevant but he didn't care, as CEOs on tirades tend to do.

The people in the room sat quietly and let him rage away. I could tell by a few of the glances exchanged that his behavior wasn't surprising.

Then my client's new engineer made a mistake.The CEO was complaining about how a product didn't conform to a specification and the engineer interrupted to say, "I understand what you are saying... but the product doesn't conform to specifications because it exceeds your specifications."

The CEO's red face got even redder and his eyes bulged even, um, bulgier. He stood and shouted, "You think you can tell me how to interpret MY specs? MY SPECS?" Then he said, "When I want your f---ing advice, I'll ask for it."

(I have to admit I was surprised he wanted the engineer to serve as his sexual advisor. Or maybe I took that wrong?)

Then he grabbed his chair with two hands and spun and flung it as hard as he could. It gouged the wall behind him and bounced off the floor. Within seconds, one of his staffers jumped up and moved his own chair to the CEO's place at the table.

(Maybe meeting etiquette holds that a chair, once thrown, can no longer be used by the thrower of said chair.)

I glanced at my client. What would he do? Would he get mad? Walk out? Ask for an apology?

Nope. None of the above.

He waited a beat and then calmly said, "What other concerns can we take care of?"

I was surprised he just moved on... but then I realized he really wasn't moving on. He started nibbling around the edges of some of the complaints, pushing back a little here, disagreeing a little there... and the CEO grew more and more frustrated.

Finally, when my client said, "I'm not sure that's totally accurate..." the CEO stood and said, "I had hoped this would be a productive meeting. I'm disappointed you're not taking our concerns more seriously. Let's reschedule this for a time when you feel you can put my needs first." Then he stomped out.

Afterwards we talked about it. "What made you decide not to say anything when he yelled at your engineer?"

"I wanted to," he replied. "Our guy did nothing wrong. But if I had defended him in the moment he still could have thought he did something wrong. So instead I basically did the same thing he had done, and the CEO treated me the same way. So now my guy knows he did nothing wrong."

"But won't your engineer wonder why you didn't take his side during the meeting?" I asked.

"Absolutely," he said. "That's why I'll talk to him as soon as we get back to the office. Then we can have a discussion about customer relationships, meeting dynamics, and we can have the discussion about dealing with conflict as equals since the customer got mad at both of us. Then my guy won't be defensive because he wasn't the only person who did something 'wrong.'"

So here's the question: should my client have taken a stand in the meeting?

My answer: Maybe... but maybe not.

From my client's point of view, pushing back too hard in front of others may have pushed his customer over the edge. While his team might have appreciated the gesture, the long term repercussions could have been disastrous for his firm.

Instead, he decided to create a small "conflict" of his own to show everyone the customer was a jerk whose actions were unfounded. (Not that anyone really needed further proof, but still.) He took a different kind of stand, purposely drawing heat while indirectly supporting his engineer.

"You know," he said, "Who cares if he threw a chair? It's his furniture. As long as he doesn't hit anybody, I don't really care. It was actually kind of funny. And I guarantee our engineer will be dining out on that story for years.

"Plus I can use this as an opportunity to help him grow, since now he can just focus on how to deal with difficult customers... instead of always wondering whether he was somehow in the wrong."

Sound reasoning, and an interesting take on a complicated situation -- but also certainly not the only possible response.

Now it's your turn: What would you have done?

Published on: Mar 16, 2017