One day, a client told his consultant: “I have a problem. Can you help?”
The consultant replied: “If you want to discuss new solutions, please call me Resource Manager, Pierre.”
The next day, the client repeated his question to a competing consultant, working on the same project.
This consultant replied: “Is it about Java?” and when the client said “No”, the conversation slowly died.
On day 3, the frustrated client spoke with another consultant, again from a competing firm: “I have a problem. Can you help?”
Exercising beautiful active empathy skills, the consultant found out exactly what the client needed.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t a problem he could solve.
On day 4, the client met the consultant he had been waiting for. Having successfully understood the problem, but out of his own area of expertise, this consultant took the issue away and into his wider network. His colleagues were able to take the ball and run with it. A few weeks later, he went back to his client to see how things had progressed. Client happy.
Are you the consultant we have been waiting for?
It’s true. My last CEO did a great job of making me sure I wanted to leave.
He officially joined the company in January of 2008, but I personally never saw him being active until the middle of February. In those first 6 weeks, he went around the rest of the world on a very expensive road-trip, visiting every branch of the company, talking with as many people as he could to find out who they were, what they wanted, how they operated and what was important to them.
When he finally arrived in Belgium, he did the same thing with most of our staff, including me. His approach, it seems, was always the same: He would ask a few questions, listen a lot and then say what he had to say. When he spoke, everything made sense. With me, it even made me decide to leave.
What he did was the finest form of active empathy and it allowed him to better understand his people and better communicate with them. When listening to me, he got an idea of who I was, what I was trying to achieve, my career aspirations, turn-ons and turn-offs. Listening attentively, he picked up on what really got me buzzing. And he quickly understood that what he wanted to achieve was not in-line with what I wanted to achieve. In no uncertain terms and in a way that made perfect sense to me, he outlined his strategy and what would be the place for my function. I understood I wouldn’t fit in and together we looked for ways to help me move on. Perfect!
Communicating in this way is an art and if it is done well, it is not a bad thing when other people who understand you decide to get off the train. It is a much better result that staying on the wrong train thanks to manipulative or bad communication.
If you want to align with other people, you need to do the same as my last CEO:
- Listen first. Ask lots of questions and drill down for more information.
- Try to get a sense of the situation, values and needs of the other person.
- Speak to people on their terms, using words they understand and align to their needs wherever possible.
- Don’t bullshit. Get to the point and speak clearly.
- Answer the only 3 questions that count.
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Phaedrus remembered reading about an experiment with special glasses that made users see everything upside down and backwards. Soon their minds adjusted and they began to see the world “normally” again. After a few weeks, when the glasses were removed, the subjects again saw everything upside down again and had to relearn the vision they had taken for granted before.
(excerpt from the philosophical novel “Lila” by Robert M. Pirsig)
In any culture, business or organisation the glasses we wear affect the way we see things. I wrote about this is my blog-post on Active Empathy, noting that we need to be able to put our go in check in order to really show empathy to other people.
In the excerpt above, Pirsig talks about the impact of time on the way our glasses shape the world. After while, our minds adapt to what was at first backwards and upside down. The same is true in business and other organisations. The question is: How can we take the glasses off?
I recently had a training participant in a course on “Proactive behaviour”. She was new to the company and came with her own special glasses, the ones she had formed in her previous company. She encountered 3 major “difficulties”:
- She couldn’t really see things the same way her new colleagues did – she disagreed with much off what she saw and heard
- She had difficulty getting herself heard; her new colleagues couldn’t see past their own glasses
- She wasn’t really truly aware of the impact of her own glasses on her perception of her new environment. She found it difficult to “be fresh” or open-minded
In “Four Hour Work Week”, Tim Ferriss tells us to “kill our sacred cows”. These are the assumptions that we have which form the way we operate and do business. In India, a sacred cow can stop traffic and in some cultures, the sacred cow would never be eaten, even when starving. Ferriss talks about how his own assumptions about the way to do business were crippling his ability for growth. His glasses were the problem. Pirsig says the same thing, although in a slightly more philosophical manner: “In any hierarchical (metaphysical) classification, the most important division is the first one, for this division dominates everything beneath it. If the first division is bad, there is no way you can ever build a good system (of classification) around it.”
If we want to innovate, develop, grow and do things differently, we need to be able to kill our sacred cows. To do this, we need to be able to see our glasses for what they really are. And this is tough.
On a high-level, 2 approaches to first identifying sacred cows may be of use:
- Go out in the world and look at how other people are doing things – although you will probably do this with your own glasses on, it can still help you to see what you are taking for granted in your own system
- Get someone from outside to come in to your own organisation and LISTEN to what they have to save
Personally, I find it easy to just ask a few good questions to understand where the sacred cows are:
- What do you absolutely believe to be true about the way you operate?
- Which people and processes can you NOT live without and why?
- In all the business you do, what 3 elements always seem to be present?
- If an outsider came into your culture and told you to stop doing certain things, what would you really hate to hear from him?
The answers to these questions may be an indication of the kinds of assumptions, glasses and sacred cows that are helping to run your business. But they may equally be the things that are stopping the traffic, development and innovation.
The question is: What are you going to do about it?
Thanks or reading!