I am not pretending to be a state negotiator, but I think you could fairly say that my working life is based around conflict resolution. It is never easy to critique someone’s beloved business, however much they may think they want the help.
As Channel 5’s Hotel Inspector and as The Fixer for BBC Two, I am asked to go into a business and very quickly analyse what the problems are and suggest and implement solutions. This is inevitably hard for the business owner. The solutions I suggest are sometimes an implicit – and often explicit – criticism of the owner, their decisions and work practices.
This is hard for both the owner and me. It is not easy to be honest and see how hurtful an owner finds it. I agonise, even after 10 years, about how to do it well and effectively. I do not aim to wound, and yet criticism is almost inevitably wounding.
Often my business owners are at the end of their tether. They have invested their money, time and hopes for the future only to be disappointed. They have an unrealistic vision of their business.
They hope that I will come in and agree with their analysis; that I will see it from their point of view rather than agreeing with their negative customer feedback. This has never happened.
I often have to confront anger and hostility. Almost every time, I make an owner cry. I have become better at dealing with this over the years, and I have learnt to be much less defensive when a conflict arises.
The first thing I now do is to reassure the owner that I am on their side. We have very little time over the course of filming a programme to effect change. I am not criticising for the sake of it. I do not have time to sugar the pill, but the pill is intended to be effective. It is up to the owner to decide whether they are willing to take the medicine and believe in my solution. If they are not, and they choose not to take my advice, I have no right and no desire to insist.
I hope that I can convince the owner of my good intentions. I always put myself in their shoes. Owning and managing a business is a brave thing to do; it may be easy to criticise but it is hard to do. I admire anyone who is prepared to take the risk. I have done it, which is why I know.
I start with honesty. If I am honest, I have been at least a million times luckier than most people on the planet. My aim is to ensure that my luck, my education and my training can benefit those I have the opportunity of influencing.
Generosity of spirit is essential. I always remind myself that the hostility I sometimes face is not personal, but a reaction to the other person’s failure of their hopes.
I try very hard not to raise my voice, as the last thing anyone in desperate trouble needs is to be browbeaten. I try never to denigrate, dishonour or mock. Often I feel disbelief when someone is arguing with me about something that might seem perfectly obvious to the most casual observer, and on occasion I am guilty of rolling my eyes like a surly teenager. But when I find my interlocutor has taken denial to an Olympic level, it is mainly, I find, as their last method of self-defence, so as not to feel hopeless in their failure.
When someone argues with me vociferously that black is actually white, nowadays I tend to become very, very calm. Humour is my fallback position, and I also use it as often as possible to relieve tension. As I am always saying to my daughter, laugh and the world laughs with you …
In this, as in so many things, my beloved grandfather (Lord Forte), who was always kind despite being immensely successful, is my lodestar. I do not like making fun of people, and I try to respect other, different points of view. I do not like someone agreeing with me to avoid an argument; I would much rather have an honest debate and come to an agreeable compromise. One line that I have used many times with particularly recalcitrant owners is: “You have tried it for a long time your way and it hasn’t worked. Why not see if my way works better?”
Finally, I am the only one who can judge what is in my heart. The most painful thing for me is for someone to doubt my intentions; I have to hold myself accountable for my words and my deeds. I have to be able to look myself in the mirror. I try to examine my conscience after a day of conflict and turbulent emotions and recognise where I have failed and where I would like to do better. It is also important to recognise that not everything can be “fixed”, and not to beat myself up about it; I can do no more than my best.