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Can You Come Speak to an Old Friend? A.K.A. Code Red

As those of you who’ve read How to Wow know, I was a mad, crazy fan of The West Wing. If you were, too, you’ll remember that there was a phrase everyone on the senior staff knew to use when they needed to pull someone out of a meeting or social situation gracefully in order to deal with something of utmost urgency and that was, “I was wondering if you could come speak to an old friend of the president’s?”

How is this relevant for you? Well, if you work in a situation where you’re surrounded by customers or clients it’s important to decided on a phrase of this kind for moments when you need to get someone to step away and come speak to you immediately.

For example, I was recently talking to a client who owns a restaurant. As I’m sure you know, going to a restaurant is about far more than the food you eat: it’s about the staff, the ambiance, the ease of the entire experience. Given this, I recommended that in moments when a member of the senior staff had to be pulled away from what they were doing immediately, the phrase, “Have you seen the Spanish wine list?” be used.

The beauty of this phrase? Its innocuousness was guaranteed not to rouse the curiosity of any customer who might hear it but—because it’s a French restaurant—there is no Spanish wine list.
A friend who used to work in a ball park told me that the code they used on the PA system to alert security to come handle a drunken fan was, “It looks like we’ve got a super fan in Section X.”

Another place a code phrase can come in handy is in meetings. Obviously, it’s not practical to get up and leave the meeting, but I do recommend all my clients have a code phrase for “We need to re-direct the conversation.”  In my experience, I’ve found having one team member ask another, “Do you have an extra pen?” doesn’t arouse much interest in anyone else present, yet effectively catches the critical team member’s attention.

Similar to the codes many couples use to signal,Let’s have this conversation at home” (and if you don’t have this in-hand, I recommend you decide on one today) having a standardized “code red” phrase ensures you and your team have a graceful way to move from one situation to another.

Frances Cole Jones 
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