Sex, Drugs, and Problem Solving, Part V

Overcoming the difficulties of the problem-solving approach

Empathy

Although you may see a problem, you must not assume that the prospect has also recognized it and that the prospect will admit the problem to you. The act of admitting a problem, especially for the first time or to a stranger, makes the prospect feel inadequate, inferior, and generally vulnerable. Until a relationship of trust is established, the prospect is likely to deny the existence of a problem. Your opening attempts to help solve some one else’s problem may also be perceived as an attempt to be self-serving or as an invasion of privacy.

Deep trust can only be established over long periods of time, and I don’t wish to dwell on the high ethical standards you must adhere to, in order to build such trust. I want to talk about rapidly building just enough trust that the prospect is willing to admit a problem. Until this level of trust is established, the prospect will express perfect contentment with a state of affairs you see as problematic.

As distinguished from the case of the prospect who knows of a problem but refuses to discuss it with you, we must consider the case of the prospect who is truly blind to a problem. The stick for such a prospect is any threat to the current state of affairs, especially competitors seeking to dislodge the prospect from their happy state. The carrot is the enviable superior situation of people comparable to the prospect—people in a similar role, or with a similar background. It may give you a feeling of power to point out competitors or superior comparables, and you may feel that you are acting as a valuable advisor to the prospect. However, if you are not careful, then the prospect will see you as an irritant to be ignored or dismissed. In the worst case, the prospect will perceive you as part of the threat you are trying to protect them from.

The same strategy applies whether the prospect is blind to the problem or simply refuses to acknowledge it to you. If you hope for their cooperation, then you must position yourself with the prospect by putting yourself on their side, being seen as a defender of the current problem-free state of affairs. The prospect must believe that you are with them.

This belief is established rapidly and deeply when you express genuine empathy with the prospect. This means expressing an emotional reaction very similar to theirs. As discussed in How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less people like people who are like themselves. (Finding common opinions is great, but common emotional reactions are likely to be more powerful. If you demonstrate understanding at a cold, intellectual level, then the prospect will remain skeptical about your understanding.) Expressing a similar emotional reaction may seem difficult if you don’t know the prospect’s interests and opinions. Under some circumstances, you may be tempted to be insincere, gushing over anything they like and wrinkling your nose at anything they dislike. However, you should seek out sincere shared emotional reactions.

There is a chicken and egg problem here: For the prospect to open up with their problems, you must first establish empathy. But to express empathy, you must first know what problems are bothering them. Like any other chicken-and-egg problem, the solution is evolution: you must establish empathy on a small scale and continue the build-up until you understand larger-scale problems. Numerous small-scale situations provide opportunities to express genuine empathy: the annoyance of waiting in line, the pleasure of a refreshingly beautiful day, the disappointment of a team’s loss, sadness over a nearby disaster. This is the ultimate value of small talk, of researching common interests, and of establishing common experiences: you are afforded the opportunity to establish genuine empathy.

Another way to seek out sincere shared emotional reactions is to ask questions, engage in active listening and express emotions when they are shared.

The most effective way is to conduct research on the prospect in advance to find common interests and shared emotional reactions.

If you have a personal stake in the prospect’s state of affairs, then it is possible to express sincere shared happiness for their contentment. Elicit agreement by recounting enthusiastically all of the virtues of the current state of affairs.

Personally, I have found it very tempting to express emotions contrary to those around me. The fact is that when you become an expert on any subject, your perceptions change. You may find fault in things that seem flawless to others. You may find value in things that seem worthless to others. When this happens, it serves your ego to contradict people. It makes you feel independent, superior, and insightful. Indeed, the contrarian approach is actually desireable for investors in the stock market!

However, as I have matured, I have learned not to indulge my ego in such circumstances. A prospect may feel betrayed if you suddenly express a contrary emotion. I don’t suggest that you misrepresent yourself or deceive the prospect, but be compassionate: make a genuine attempt to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and thereby experience the same emotions they do.

Part VI will discuss establishing a shared vision with the prospect.

Tags: Business, Philosophy

Updated at: 8 December 2006 12:12 AM

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