This article appeared in May 2019, in Romanian, in BIZ Magazine
In the 80’s I read in the “Cinema” magazine a joke that fascinated me: “Honey, if you were Iurie Darie, you would’ve been as beautiful as him!”. Like a koan, this joke made me wonder for the first time what it would be like to be someone else.
Have you ever been stuck in traffic and see sequences of family intimacy in the surrounding cars, couples talking heatedly, parents laughing with their children, a lady who puts some make-up in the rearview mirror and wondering “How’s the life of these people? ” or “What would it be like to be the gentleman or the lady in the next car?”.
Have you ever tried, seeing a decent man who has a totally different political option, to imagine what’s his life story? Have you ever tried to look at life from your partner’s perspective? Have you thought about how your customers see you?
All these situations are about empathy, about the ability to understand and even feel what another is experiencing, from his point of view. In other words, it means knowing how to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Empathy is not a common quality, although no one would characterize themselves as lacking in empathy. And that’s because most of us are trapped in our reference system and confuse “How does the other one feel?” with “How would I feel in his place?”.
Empathy in business
Here, at Biz, we are not talking about psychology, but about business. The research of empathy in business relations has a long history and there are studies that link, for example, the seller’s level of empathy with the buyer’s level of satisfaction. In services we have something called Active Empathic Listening and it can be measured.
Another example: the leader’s level of empathy, measured on four different dimensions, was proved to be correlated with the team’s productivity. Today I will write about three ways in which empathy can influence the outcome of a pitch, which is a one-on-one persuasion effort.
Why did I use the term “persuasion effort” and not “sales effort”? Because the principles also apply when we “sell” ourselves, at an employment meeting, and when we “sell” a project to the board to ensure the necessary investment, not just when we sell a product or service to a customer. All three aspects presented below have a common point: I ask you to try, before the meeting, to get to know and understand your interlocutor so that you can approach him and his needs, and not talk about you and your needs.
Why should he care?
What is important to us is often much less important to the other. And the first thing we need to do is to create a connection between the topic of discussion and the interlocutor’s needs.
If I go to the boss’s office saying that I want the new position of area manager, the low priority for him on this topic (which is about me, not about him or about the company) will make him yawn and sending SMS while pretending to listen to me. You can anticipate the verdict. And that’s because the boss doesn’t know how I, from the position of area manager, can influence the smooth running of the company or even its annual performance.
And by the time I tell him, he is already bored. If, however, I ask him for a meeting to tell him that I have found the blockage of communication with customers in the area and I know how to overcome it, he will be eager to see and listen to me. So, the first thing in such a pitch is to show why we deserve the other’s attention, turning the discussion to his area of interest.
Why would he say “yes”?
The argument that convinces me is often totally different from the argument that can convince the other. I was on a train in the early years after 1989, talking to a colleague from university about communism.
A gentleman of about fifty-something years old joined the discussion saying that in Ceausescu’s time everything was better. How? Obviously, we competed in giving him arguments about the obvious differences between current times versus the period when Ceausescu ruled: we can travel abroad (note for younger readers: until 1989, it was very difficult to get your passport, and after it was issued, it stayed at the passport’s service desk, not in your drawer; in order to go somewhere, you had to make a request in which you wrote where you are going and what you are doing and you hoped that it would be approved – however, it was rarely approved).
Now we can talk freely, we have access to all kinds of western products, from jeans to Coca-Cola, and so on. Relaxed, the gentleman took our arguments one by one and ruined them. He used to work at CFR. Before ’89 he traveled by train for free anywhere in the country, every summer he went for free with his family to the seaside and every winter to the mountains.
He was not interested in going abroad at all. He cared too little about free speech. As for jeans and Coca-Cola, he didn’t need them at all. Instead, in Ceausescu’s time, while there weren’t many things to buy, he had free access to CFR restaurants, where the steak was cheap and good.
All those advantages disappeared after the Revolution. In fact, they have been replaced by inflation and job insecurity. How could it not have been better, for him at least, in Ceausescu’s time? We didn’t know what to reply. That discussion taught me to adapt the arguments to the interlocutor. And, from time to time, I try to imagine what might have convinced the gentleman. What arguments would you have brought to him?
In business, this way of bringing personalized arguments requires a little prior research and empathic listening during the conversation. If the software solution you want to propose to the bank solves some problems that the bank doesn’t even know it has, it’s unlikely to sign the contract.
If the benefits exist, but are related to the customer, you can make the effort to make them understand what benefits are on the business side: “If online payment is easier, your customers will be happier” can be replaced with “If online payment is easier, your customers will be happier and will migrate all their banking operations to your bank, increasing both revenues as well as market share. And your position, once you have implemented this process, will be a very good one”.
During a course, I facilitated an exercise in which two division heads in a company had to convince each other of various things. For real. One of them, head of the X division, insisted that if the Y division adopts I don’t know what collaboration protocol, they, the X division, will be more productive. And it didn’t work out.
And then I asked him to find three reasons why Division Y would benefit from the protocol. He hadn’t thought about that before. After about five minutes, however, he came up with three valid reasons and the protocol was accepted. Immediately.
Finally, if you are asking for a raise, don’t explain why you need more money, but explain what are the benefits you can bring to the company if you get that raise. It’s more complicated, but ten times more effective.
Why would he say “no”?
The arguments for which the interlocutor would say “no” are different and much harder to counteract than the ones for a say “yes”. Therefore, before any such meeting, it’s good to do a little exercise: imagine that the meeting already took place and ended with a refusal. And then we ask ourselves: why were we refused? Think of three possible reasons and then try to find counterarguments for those reasons
This exercise is adapted from the pre-mortem analysis process, the advantages of which I have already written about. In short, the software, the salary increase, the investment for the project or the job of area manager will never be obtained if there is a strong argument against them. Especially if we haven’t even thought about it and don’t know how to counter it. We don’t have arguments against it.
We go to the meeting prepared with a bunch of pro arguments, and then the other one destroys everything with one argument against: “Your software may be the best for online payments, but the bank never sign contracts with start-ups”, “We would like to increase your salary, but we have no money”, “The only criterion for approving investments is ROI, and your research project doesn’t guarantee any profit for sure”, “You would be perfect for the area manager job, but to apply, you need ten years of experience in the company, and you have only five”.
I admit, I chose counterarguments that are difficult or impossible to dismantle. But it’s not always like that. A little documentation and prior preparation can work wonders. And if the argument against is brought up by you, before it is dismantled, you suddenly become much more credible: “I know that your bank never signs contracts with startups, so we are ready to implement our service in collaboration with X-Soft, the company you have worked with in recent years. I have already worked with them and they are happy to collaborate on the project”.
Empathy, beyond the obvious benefits it has, can help us be more persuasive. And, apart from small five-minute exercises like the ones described above, it only takes a few imaginary trips. Put yourself in others’ shoes.