UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

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03/11/2006 - 7:47 a.m.

A LITTLE CHAT

Chat is more important than many people recognize. Chat sometimes is the difference between someone going the extra mile for you or just enforcing the easiest interpretation of the rules. Chatting well is an art in business and an important one. I credit chat, for example, as the reason I have fewer problems scheduling client visits in the prison and I have fewer problems when paperwork goes awry.

It starts with the scheduling phone call. At some institutions, I know who will answer the phones to set the visit. Other institutions seem to have a revolving door or revolving policy. When I contact these institutions, I gear myself up to really listen when the woman (and it is almost always a woman) answers the phone. As she intones, "Records Office. Cher" or "Social Services. Debbie," I make a quick note of the name. Literally. I jot it down on a piece of paper in front of me and prepare to work it into the conversation.

Chat topics should be safe. Sometimes, if things are going smoothly, I talk about the weather. Other times, I chat about what a pest I'm being, especially if I am asking for something that voice tone suggests is a bit difficult. Any topic that unites us against the system can be very helpful but requires one to tread more carefully.

Yes, I believe in chat. But all this chatter is really just a way of explaining how a discussion on the nature of packages got me into a prison. (Okay, okay, stop thinking it. I was there to visit a client. They haven't caught up with me quite yet.) I owe my somewhat successful day to chat.

I was on the road yesterday morning before 7:00 a.m. It takes approximately two hours from here to the prison my client was in. The prison requires 24 hour notice for a visit and I figured I should be fine. I had called and set up the visit last week. I had called and set it up with someone who has actually arranged visits before so I assumed she knew the paperwork and would have it done. Bad assumption. I got to the gatehouse----and no paperwork there. But for the packages, I might have had to turn around and drive back the two hours with no visit. That outcome would have meant another day devoted to the road.

But I had chatted so I was okay. As I was coming into the gatehouse area, the UPS guy was there, unloading packages. There were more than thirty packages he had taken off his hand truck and stacked in there and he was in the process of using that little computer to read the labels from each one. "Beep," went his computer. "Beep. Beep." I looked at the guard by the metal detector. I looked at the female guard who was logging in the packages. "Goodness," I said. "If this is the best you can do for live music, I really recommend you go back to playing the radio." Laughter.

Just after that, we discovered that the paperwork was not at the guardhouse. I am fairly well organized (well, once I find my keys) so I had written down who I had talked to, her department, and when I spoke with her. "Oh, no," I responded. "I thought it would be here because I spoke with J. last week." I did not say that it "should have" been there. "Should have" suggests that someone made a mistake. My chat policy involves no accusations of any one in a lower-level position.

"Let's see if we can sort this out," responded the guard.

"I don't know if you can but I really thank you for trying," I gushed.

It took five minutes but, sure enough, a little gushy chat did it again. I was inówith an apology no less.

You can yell, you can stomp, you can be petulant or you can chat. Me, I'll go with chat.

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