Business Lessons from the FBI (Yes, Really)

While former FBI Director James Comey joked that the most important lesson to be learned from his testimony before Congress last week might be “don’t cancel a date with your wife,” his testimony also revealed an important lesson for business: documentation can save your hide.

Top FBI officials have confirmed that it is standard for people in law enforcement, including the FBI, to keep detailed phone and meeting logs. In other words, they maintain careful, contemporaneous notes. Law enforcement officers do this not only when they are concerned about impropriety, as was the case for Comey, but also as a general practice – because everyone in law enforcement recognizes that memories are fleeting and details are important but can be easily forgotten. These lessons transcend beyond law enforcement and into business. While notes are not a substitute for a contract with customers, vendors, and partners (more on this here), they can help ensure clarity and minimize conflict during the business relationship.

Whether digital or analog, taking notes during a business meeting:

Helps strengthen your business relationships. Taking notes sends the message that what the person is telling you is important, and that you are making a meaningful effort to remember the points they raise. It also helps increase active listening, and reduce interruptions, which helps customers feel heard. If you should have a question while the customer is talking, you can simply make note of it and ask it after they have made their point. In doing so, the customer feels important to you, which has a tendency to strengthen the business relationship and increase the customer’s loyalty to you.

Boosts your own comprehension and retention. Whether you are negotiating a deal or meeting with a client, customer, or co-worker, taking notes about the substance of the conversation has been shown to help with your retention of such information. If you should subsequently forget a detail, you have a record of the discussions to which to refresh your recollection. And should the relationship escalate to litigation, those contemporaneous notes, which were made before there was a dispute and before anyone has motivation to slant the facts to the author’s favor, can likely be introduced as business records pursuant to your state’s evidence code to reflect the substance of the conversations.

Helps you think through ideas. Similarly, taking notes during a meeting helps you think through ideas, flesh them out, and plan the logical next steps. Follow up issues can be noted, then documented and calendared when you are back at the office for discussion or action at the appropriate times. Going over details and timelines during the meeting will help ensure gaps are filled, questions are addressed, and everyone is on the same page. This helps make for a smooth working relationship and reasonable expectations.

Improves focus. Not only will note-taking help with all of the foregoing, but it can also help focus your conversation on the project(s) at hand. When the conversation veers off topic, you can easily bring it back by glancing at your notes. Meeting recaps, action plans, and picking up at the next meeting where you left off will all be made easier thanks to your note taking and keep everyone focused on the project.

So, take a lesson from the FBI and don't allow your business dealings to be handled in a vacuum.

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