I had a nightmare last night and I bet you’ve had one that is similar. I dreamed I was at dinner with friends – some old friends and a few new ones. The restaurant was noisy – probably not the best choice for a relaxed dinner and conversation, especially when our goal was to get to know each other better.

I’d taken pains to tell everyone (through e-mail) that we had a special guest and that we would all chip in to take care of his meal. The five of us ordered. Some had drinks, some did not. Some ate full meals, some ate salads. The time flew.

Our guest of honor – who is fascinating and tells some of the best stories – hardly got a chance to share his story! Everyone kept interrupting, stories trailed off, the server came by with interruptions in the course of the dinner, and our attempt to go around the table and share our stories never even made it full circle. It was chaotic, but it was still okay as there was never a split second of awkward silence.

As “The Queen of the Business Lunch”, I’ve often had people tell me that they would be too intimidated to eat with me. This makes me laugh. They hold me to a higher standard, thinking I know all the ins and outs of socializing. What they don’t realize is that I’m human, too, and make many mistakes. That is one of the reasons I wrote “The Art of the Business Lunch” – why should we ALL have to make the same mistakes when, instead, you could learn from all the mistakes I’VE made without having to make them yourself?!?

It’s true, I do know more than the average person about etiquette – particularly business etiquette. Being able to execute it, however, can still be challenging. I speak on business etiquette, how to make lively conversation, and even on how to handle the check discreetly. This is particularly helpful when taking clients out. Unfortunately, group events where it’s “each man for himself” still leave me dazed and confused.

In business, I always say that whoever does the inviting should pick up the check. Often times, in order to avoid an embarrassing situation, I’ll pick up a check that is not mine to pick up. One such example happened when I was printing my first book.

My original, self-published book

A printer invited me to lunch. He stood to make a good deal of money off of me. We had a nice lunch and then the check came. And it sat there…and sat there. Finally, I said, “Well, let’s see what we have here.” The printer reached for his wallet and said, “Oh here…let me…get the tip.” HUH? Did he get my printing business? What do you think! He lost a sale for thousands of dollars simply because he invited me to lunch and failed to pick up the check.

But like last night’s conversation, I digress. Back to the dream…

Paying for Dinner - It Doesn't HAVE to Be a Disaster!

The check finally came and it was put in front of me. $235. How was that possible when no one ate anything (or so it seemed!) I attempted to split it five ways. Our guest of honor immediately tossed in $40 – and I forgot that the rest of us had agreed he was to be our guest. One of the new friends said, “I didn’t have anything to drink,” and another friend said, “I didn’t have anything to eat,” though she shared a bottle of wine and had an order of fries AND would have put in extra to cover our guest. And with a built-in gratuity and 8% sales tax, it’s easy for people to miscalculate what they actually owe. Oh – and there was a lovely mix of cash and credit cards to make things even worse!

As I said, I am human – and I panicked! Yes, it can happen. It was late, I was tired, I’d had a glass of wine with dinner and a cocktail before that, so I just wasn’t as sharp as I could have been. No one chipped in the extra, earlier agreed upon money to cover our guest. And another friend who knew we were “going Dutch” but didn’t know we were trying to pick up our guest’s meal, was the only one who ordered a full meal, a cocktail, and shared the bottle of wine, did not put in even enough to cover his share.

BUT THIS IS ALL BESIDE THE POINT! You must NEVER get into a “you had this and she had that” scenario!!! It’s not just a nightmare, but it makes everyone uncomfortable. SO – when people do not pay what they should, what is the solution? The solution is to avoid that situation to begin with!

After waking up with my “nightmare” still fresh in my mind, feeling positively dreadful over how things were settled, I started out today by asking some of my expert sources what they would have done and how they might have handled this. My favorite response was from Phil Robertson, a marketing expert who has experienced similar “nightmare” experiences. Phil said the very best way to handle this is from the moment you sit down together at the table.

Phil said you get everyone’s attention and say, “We are here this evening to get to know and honor our special guest. We are going to split the check evenly – so order whatever you want.” That way, everyone knows going in that they must “pay to play.” They will have a special evening and they will eat and drink what they want (or not), and they will come away enriched and entertained. It’s not about the dinner – it’s about the RELATIONSHIPS!

The reason I like Phil’s suggestion so much is that it not only resolves the whole chaotic scene at the end of the meal, but it also HONORS your guest in the clearest, most upfront way – making them FEEL SPECIAL – which is what I speak on ALL THE TIME! It’s critically important to make others feel special. Not only does Phil’s suggestion single out your guest and make them feel special, but it also makes the REST of the guests there feel special – since they get to share in a special evening. SPECIAL, SPECIAL, SPECIAL – are you seeing a pattern here?

I doubt our guest felt very honored last night, other than by the fact that we showed up. Not only that, but he hardly had a chance to speak at all!  Again, a noisy restaurant, interruptions all around, and five type-A personalities can make it hard to get a word in. What a wasted opportunity, hence – a dream dinner became a nightmare. Has this ever happened to you?

At this point, I’m in full damage-control mode. Our guest is in for a special treat – which I am currently working on. I don’t want him to think for a minute that he isn’t special; he is. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t be the wreck I am today.

One of the other messages I always share is to follow the Scout’s motto: Be Prepared. It’s not surprising that the solution to this situation lies in being prepared – making an announcement, avoiding the situation to begin with. Success expert Napoleon Hill said, “In every adversity, there lies the seed of greater advantage.” I have a new story for my presentations, I uncovered great advice for others (since I’m not the ONLY person this happens to), and hopefully, my guest will know the depth of concern for him and his feelings by this self-deprecating blog.

On the bright side, being able to learn from our mistakes makes us that much sharper and savvy the NEXT time we encounter an opportunity to grow.