They’re Just Not That Into You

I remember an old, old Peanuts cartoon. Charlie Brown is watching Lucy and another girl from afar. He approaches them: “You girls were talking about me, weren’t you!” he says accusingly.

“No we weren’t,” the girls say with a smug expression. Charlie Brown reverts to his earlier distant position, and waits a bit. Only to return once again, and ask: “How come you girls never talk about me?

We All Act Like We’re the Center of the Universe

A basic human presumption seems to be that we are, each of us, the Center of the Universe (COTU).

I recall reading about a Brazilian native tribe largely insulated from the rest of the world. Some westerners took two tribesmen on a trip to Sao Paulo, and then New York.

At their first stop, a large village of several hundred, they were a little nervous, but not intimidated. Then they made it to Manaus, Sao Paulo, and so on. At each stop, they became more shut down. When they finally returned to their part of the Amazon, they were permanently shocked out of their beliefs, and were not much the better for their education.

The Chinese call their land The Middle Kingdom. World maps in the US have, guess which country at the center? Not the same country as with maps sold in, say, France.

Years ago I read a study of students and professors. The study asked students how much time they spent thinking about the professors (not much), and how much time they thought the professors spent thinking about them (a lot,the students figured).

The professors, asked the same questions, said they didn’t in fact spend much time thinking about the students, but they were sure that the students, of course, spent lots of time thinking about them. Wrong again. Center of the Universe.  COTU all over the place.

On a more cosmic scale, it was only recently in history that we could as a species countenance the idea that the universe might not revolve around planet earth. And as ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, each child grows up thinking his family, her bedroom, is probably the center of the universe.

Some of us—some a bit more than others—escape from the tyranny of self, but only just a little bit. We get angry, resentful and afraid—basically because people don’t behave the way we would like them to. After all, aren’t we the center of the universe?

We’re Not the Center of the Universe–Fortunately

Of course, we are most assuredly not. All those would-be subjects of ours aren’t paying us homage—basically they’re just not that into us.  They pay us about as much attention as we pay them (embarrassingly little, and please don’t tell anyone).

But there are two great causes for optimism in this observation. First, since most of humanity doesn’t really concern itself with us (or give a damn?), we are quite free of the bondage of others’ opinions. Our slavery is of our own creation.  We hold our own keys to freedom.

Second, once we see that others have the same uni-centric disease that we do, we can lighten up a bit and reach out over the 50-50 line for a touch of human contact.

Yul Bryner once said, “We come into this world alone, and we leave it alone; and if someone offers you kindness along the way, you don’t spit on it.” And, by and large, we don’t.

Bryner’s is the minimalist version. The maximalist version is that if you touch someone, you help to free them from their own self-obsessed bondage. By reaching outside yourself, you initially delight them; but quickly that turns to teaching by example. You show that it can be done, and you role-model the benefits of doing so.

If you live in the space that says you’re the center of the universe, people’s orbits tend to fly away from you. But if you reject that belief, then people become attracted to you; oddly, you become (directionally) the center of much more.  They trust you.

If  you think this blogpost isn’t about business, please think again. Think of what it means for sales, customer service, negotiation, contracts writing, supply chain management, marketing, advising, accounting, and customer engineering.

You are not the center of the universe. What a blessing.  Go pay attention to someone else.

Great All-Time Trust-based Selling Insights, #17

I’m going to hand over the space today to a guest-blogger: Walt Shill at Accenture.  Walt does a weekly internal blog for ACC, and was kind enough to grant us permission to slavishly “re-tweet” his recent blogpost.

If you’re wondering just how to make sense of Trust-based Selling, or to see the power of low self-orientation in the Trust Quotient, I can’t think of a better story than the one Walt shares here.   (Look for the ZZ Top reference).

Take it away, Walt.

Bob and his Two Simple Questions

Years ago I was assigned to work with Bob – a senior Director. I was a struggling manager. People whispered about Bob and many avoided working with him … You see, he had an unusual style that was reminiscent of Columbo – the brilliant TV homicide detective from the 70s played by Peter Falk.

Bob was never accused of being a sharp dressed man …. He always seemed a bit disorganized and seemingly slow to pick up key points …. Bob was unfailingly polite, but he had a way of asking clients odd questions at awkward times… I must admit, as I started I was a little embarrassed to be with him.

I did most of the grunt work of analysis and preparing decks for Bob, but I also accompanied him to many meetings in the C Suites of half a dozen companies…. And just like Columbo’s (and Steve Jobs’) famous line, “Just one more thing”, Bob somehow managed to always ask some version of two simple questions in every meeting……

How’s business? As a meeting started Bob would casually ask “So… How’s business ?” The client would start with a basic answer, but Bob cleverly teased out evermore detail by mumbling: “uh huh”, “yea”, and innocently asking over and over again – “hmmm, so why is that?”

He never, never, never responded that we could help…. in fact he hardly spoke at all… he was just listening very, very intently… and asking gentle questions with such childlike curiosity that the clients could not resist telling him more.

Sometimes the entire hour would pass with Bob’s wandering questions and we would have to reschedule. …Frequently I had been up all night preparing a document for the meeting –and I would get angry that he was wasting valuable time that I could use to impress the client with my brilliant charts and precise data and blinding insights…..

Weeks or even months later, we would follow up on the key issues. …. And our proposals were always spot on – Bob had an incredible insight to the core issues facing the company…..

I began to realize that Bob’s simple question – “How’s business?” had been creating a massive pipeline for us.

How are YOU doing??  As we were wrapping up a meeting, Bob would innocently ask, “So, how are you doing ?” If the client started talking about the company or business, Bob would gently interrupt them and say, “no, I meant how are YOU personally doing ?” ….followed by his usual “why is that ?” ..his odd style conveyed genuine interest and caring … After just 2 or 3 meetings Bob had started a deep personal relationship because of how much the client had revealed about their aspirations, frustrations and personal lives… all of which were filed somewhere in the recesses of Bob’s complex but powerful brain.

My respect for Bob grew ……and today I marvel at how he faithfully served senior leaders on their most critical issues, grew a very big practice and built his career (and helped mine!) … all by simply asking and then intently listening and genuinely caring about the answers to two simple questions:

“So, how’s business?”

“So, how are YOU doing?”


What Walt said. 


The Great Empathy Famine

I spent the weekend in California. It started as a mini-vacation—joining a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. It ended with most of the time in my hotel room with the flu.

At first, my demeanor was positive (why compound physical misery with a bad attitude) but steadily declined as I negotiated all the logistical changes required to extend my stay until I could haul my ailing self back across the country. 

Of all the service providers with whom I interacted (hotel desk clerks, cleaning ladies, airport rental car attendant), not one acknowledged my matter-of-fact revelation that I was asking for help because I was sick and couldn’t go home.

Why Is Empathy So Hard to Find?

Now, I wasn’t looking for sympathy from these folk (well, maybe a tad).  It just would have been nice if, when they learned of my situation, they had given some hint that they had actually heard what I said.  "Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” would have completely sufficed. Or “Oh dear!” Even “Bummer, dude.” 

But no.  Nothin’.  Nada. When I finally emerged from my room, the cleaning lady had an attitude – the Do Not Disturb sign that hung on the door for 48 hours straight had kept her from doing her job.

The Alamo car check-in guy dutifully read – word-for-word – the statement on the back of my agreement justifying the additional $10.99 late return charge.  Waiving the $10 might have made me a customer for life.   Just saying, “I’m so sorry that my job requires me to tack on this extra fee under the circumstances” might have led me to consider  renting from Alamo again.

These are not unhappy or unfriendly people. Hey, it’s California. They get a lot of sun. And it’s not like they were in roles not requiring interpersonal skills — I’ll give the hotel housekeeper a pass, but the rest were front-line customer service types.  And honestly, I wasn’t being a cranky-whiny-pain-in-the-you-know-what sick person – I promise.

I’m not sure what the problem was.  Perhaps they weren’t really listening. Or they just didn’t know what to say.

Empathy Isn’t Really All That Difficult

The thing is, empathy isn’t that hard. It comes in many forms: “I’m terribly sorry,” or “I’m sure that wasn’t how you wanted to spend your weekend here!”  or even “That sucks!” (sorry, Mom, I know you hate that word).

Just acknowledge — rather than avoid — the emotional reality of the human being on the other end of the phone/service counter/board room table.
Are you uncomfortable in this touchy-feely zone? That’s perfectly normal.  But it’s also a bad excuse for doing nothing. Awkward empathy beats no empathy any day of the week.

In our Trusted Advisor and Trust-Based Selling  programs we spend a lot of time practicing empathy. Put in the terms of the Trust Equation, empathy creates intimacy and intimacy builds trust.

Empathy is imperative in professional services; listening is what drives influence.  Just asking good questions is not enough to be a good listener.

Having your client get that you got him — emotionally as well as cognitively — is what earns you the Top Listener award, which in turn earns you the right to be heard.

Next time you ask your client how her weekend was, and she mutters “Not quite what I expected,” try putting the meeting agenda aside just long enough to say, “I’m sorry to hear that” or – context-permitting – “Bummer, dude.”

And if your client ever reveals something that leaves you feeling itchy and unsure what to say, say that (“Oh … I’m not sure what to say”). Any attempt will do.

Sucks To Be You

Ever feel like being sincere–but want to hedge your bets?  To sincerely empathize with another–but not lose your hipness?

Then it’s hard to beat, “It sucks to be you.”

The phrase has been around at least a decade; it was the title of a 1999 hit record by Prozzak, and a song in the play Avenue Q.

Which is more popular: self-pity, or sarcasm?  Here are googling results for:

    “Sucks to be me”    111,000
    “Sucks to be you”    215,000

Sounds like sarcasm wins.

I was reminded of this phrase a few days by a scene in the TV show Scrubs, wherein a new intern used it in lieu of a more traditional bedside manner.  (Another Scrubs moment: Turk tries it on Carla, with not so funny results).

Here are some snarky definitions from the Urban Dictionary

When something bad happened to another person, it sucks to be that person.  “Your daddy is in jail for getting you pregnant. Sucks to be you.”

A phrase which expresses mild sympathy for the plight of another, while implying greater relief that those circumstances have befallen someone other than the speaker.

An expression of acknowledgement of hardship. Depending on context, can be sympathetic or taunting.

“You: My car broke down, and I have to get to the other side of the state tonight!
“Me: Damn, dude. Sucks to be you.

“Her: I totally blew my interview, and now you’re going to get the job for sure.
“Him: Ha ha! Sucks to be you!

I’m fascinated by this phrase, and I’m not entirely sure why. 

•    On the purely aesthetic side, it is an artfully efficient expression of ambivalence—in only four words, it confuses the listener as to the speaker’s intentions.

•    Like much slang, it can change meaning depending on intonation alone.

•    Like doublespeak, it can hide motives, while appearing clear.

In other words, it’s the ideal phrase for those seeking to remain ambiguous.

I have no idea whether the phrase has gotten more, or less, popular in recent years, but I suspect it’s a phrase for the times–when the times are slippery, hip, frivolous, and when sincerity is slightly out of vogue.  Like, a few years ago.

If that’s true, then I suspect the phrase is in for a decline.  The times right now are darker, less celebrating of witty repartee. In such times, snarky humor just isn’t as funny.  

We are inclined to be more frustrated, seeing that our fates more are tied to those of others. If it sucks to be you, it probably sucks to be me too. It behooves us all in such times to relearn trust in each other.


A Marketing Company that Gets It on Trust

When I think of companies that "get" trust, marketing / advertising / communications / PR companies are not first to my mind. 

For one thing, trust is heavily personal, and marketing companies are largely forced to deal in one-to-many one-way communications. For another, the business can be very much about “the pitch,” and about one’s devotion to one’s creativity more than to the client. Finally, marketing companies are very much subjected to short-term performance analytics, resulting in a lack of emphasis on relationships.

So imagine my surprise—maybe even shock, certainly delight—when I got a call from the good people at Unit7. CEO Loreen Babcock says, “I’ve been thinking about trust for 4-5 years now—but it’s only recently that people seem to ‘get’ what I’ve been saying.”

The emphasis on trust is apparent throughout their website. You know about CRM (customer relationship management); they’ve trademarked TRM (Trust Relationship Management). As they put it, "Trust takes root when consumers feel listened to, deeply understood. ‘My concerns are your concerns.’" Exactly. Exactly.

Unit 7 also "gets" the relationship of collaboration to trust: "The world is changing too fast, there are too many touch opportunities for any single person to have all the answers."  Right again.

Babcock and the staff of Unit7 have also identified the value of empathy in the trust arena. They recognize the power of stories about trust—and have begun collecting them internally and sharing them with the world.

But what makes this different from just another ad spin, from thumbing a ride on the zeitgeist for kicks?

If you believe trust is personal, and that marketing companies need to be trusted by their clients (and their clients in turn by their own ultimate customers), then what can you do? 

Here’s what got me.

Unit7 is doing a campaign on Type 2 Diabetes. They offered the entire office’s staff a chance to participate in a program: to conduct their lives for 14 weeks as if each of them had Type II diabetes. 67% of the team took decided to participate.  Sticking your finger twice a day.  Exercise.  Passing up foods.  Living a life not under your control. 

It was hard. And everyone learned a lot. And everyone came to really understand, at least a just little, what it must be like to suffer from that disease.

The program is described in detail in They Feel Your Pain in BrandWeek. In that article, several marketers, including Seth Godin, criticize Unit7’s venture because "it’s impossible to empathize with someone who has diabetes…it’s disingenous…they can’t know what it’s like to walk everyday in the shoes of someone who could die from this disease." I couldn’t disagree more. The value of empathy in this world is precisely because of our inability to know another’s life directly. To call an attempt at empathy "disingenous" is to suggest there’s no point in my trying to empathize with women, or people of color. Empathy is what gives us a ladder out of our daily existential reality to connect with another unique and different humanoid on the planet. The issue is not whether we can gain total knowledge of another, but simply whether our attempts are sincere.

One of the fundamental principles of trust is that we trust those who we believe understand us. In fact, if we don’t believe they understand us, we don’t trust them. Call this "empathy" if you like. You can also find it in the old sales line, "People don’t care what you know until they know that you care."

This is powerful stuff. Unit7 have figured out that branding and trust need not be incompatible—the key is to trust the people behind the brand. Very much what I was trying to get at a month ago in “Is Brand Trust an Oxymoron.

Kudos to the folks at Unit 7. Doing the trust thing in the real world.