Burden of the Good Kid

My daughter is a very well-behaved child and that worries me.

I was too, for that matter. So was my wife. Generally speaking, we didn’t get in trouble. We followed the rules. We aggravated our parents from time to time, but that was about the extent of our rebellion.

We heard, over and over again, “you’re so well-behaved.”

“You’re so polite.”

“What a good kid you are.”

These affirmations aren’t the result of doing something special, but because you did nothing special. Nothing remarkable. You were no bother. And that’s the entire point.

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No One Does Anything for YOUR Reasons

I’d love to be more influential. I’ve read a lot about it, but I can’t seem to figure it out. I’m not the kind of person who oozes charisma. I don’t think I look the part, nor am I much of a smooth talker or extroverted life-of-the-party type. If I’m honest, I’m pretty dorky.

So why do I get asked to lead new projects? Why have people turned to me to orchestrate change? To run trainings? To grow sales? Why do I end up in positions of authority despite being the least-knowledgable (and never the smartest) person in the room?

Because it’s not about me.


Influence Starts with Empathy

In the beginning of my career, I was pretty certain most people I worked for “didn’t get it.” Never mind I was new in business with 20+ fewer years of experience than they had. I was pretty sure of myself. If only they understood me, I could fix things. If only.

A Lesson in Self-Awareness

The status quo was never good enough, in my high-minded approach to the world. So whatever task was assigned to me, my typical MO was to tear it down and design a new one. Sometimes this out-of-the-box attitude earned me praise, often it didn’t.

There’s the whole matter of being wrong, of course. It happened early and often. And when I was wrong, my ideas were rightfully ignored. Though that didn’t stop me from going home and stewing about it. (Just ask my wife.)

Then there’s the issue of being right, without having the authority or responsibility to make the change I envisioned. When those things rest with other people, boy howdy, I didn’t just stew. I’d cause a ruckus. Yes, I was a punk. When I was sure I was right, I also thought the world was going to end because no one would listen to me. It was intolerable. The fools!

That kind of frustration was a major factor in deciding to start and run my own businesses. And while independence benefited my ego, it also forced me to learn faster. A lot faster. I couldn’t go home and stew about anyone. Without a boss to blame, there were only clients. I couldn’t rationally blame clients (though I did).

Why in the world don’t people do what’s best for them? Since I obviously have the best ideas about what that is, why don’t they listen to me?

They Didn’t Listen to Me, Because I Didn’t Listen to Them

I should have known better. I was a trained counselor, after all. I had taught group facilitation. While I had the skills to listen effectively, I hadn’t truly internalized the importance of doing so.

Yes, I could read a prospect’s cues or my manager’s frustration. But rather than dig into those feelings, I reacted to them like landmines to avoid– problems to overcome. My ego wanted the win, so I’d push, hoping the underlying objections or misunderstandings would melt away, like they always do in magical sales trainings that get to a yes. And when they didn’t, I blamed the other person, because they were probably being stupid.

Well of course they weren’t. I was. I might have been listening, but I wasn’t really hearing what they said, or what they needed. That was my fault. I was pushing my agenda, not constructing solutions.


Getting Over Myself

No one wakes up in the morning wondering how to please a stranger they have yet to meet. We just don’t put a lot of energy into how other people feel. Even if you are trying to do good in the world, you likely have an agenda. You want an outcome. I sure did. And I pushed for my agenda. Hard.

What I learned, however, was that I couldn’t possibly know what’s best for the person I was talking to. My ego wanted agreement. My ego wanted to help. My ego drove me to get my way.

I did get my way with regularity, performing well in sales, sometimes very well. I was good at winning arguments, but I also had my failures, and they stuck with me, probably too much. I let my ego get hurt. To do better, I had to be better. I had to get over myself.

The Discipline of Discovery

About 15 years ago, I was introduced to the idea of buyer-centered selling. I started letting go of what I wanted, and learning how to forget about my own goals in favor of my prospect’s goals. I stopped caring about winning or losing the sale, and focused intently on learning– about the other person, their viewpoint, their priorities, their worries…

My performance wasn’t the point. My goals took a back seat. When I could put myself in the other person’s perspective, and they knew I could, everything changed.

As one of my trainers would say, “He who learns the most, wins.”

This isn’t just true in sales. It’s also vitally important in managing people effectively, discovering what your customers truly want, and designing new solutions that are meaningful to them and easy to use. As you might expect, I’m a huge advocate of “human-centered design.”

Discovering more than others do is a powerful advantage, not just because it ensures you make decisions based on fact, but because the people you serve, want your help.

We are Wired for Socially Constructive Behavior

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Mind Games

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

–Marcus Aurelius


I’m often reminded of the wisdom we all possess when talking with kids, including my daughter. She was troubled by how often another girl in her class was awarded “Outstanding Owl” by her teacher. It’s the highest honor a student can achieve in a given day and, let me tell you, they covet each and every “O-O” bestowed upon them.


But Ella didn’t think the other girl deserved all the recognition. And she thought the teacher was overlooking her. It wasn’t fair. It made her angry with the other student, even her teacher.

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An Experiment: Listen Better Immediately

I’ve got listening skillz. If I really concentrate, exercise self-control and call on my training of long ago when I was a counselor for troubled kids… or my consultative sales training after that… or my dog behavioral therapist training after that…

OK. I should have listening skillz. Because I was really good at all of those things.

But I don’t employ my skillz nearly as often or as well as I should. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Maybe because I’m a middle child of five. Who knows. Doesn’t matter.

The point is, if I listen better, I can serve those around me better. I can help them dig deeper. I can help them listen to themselves, not me. I can truly empathize, rather than map on my own situation. Most importantly, can help them feel understood. At the same time, I can learn and understand.

So here’s what I’m doing about it:

I’m assigning myself a story-telling timeout.

For one full week,
I will not wait to share my experience.
I will not tell my own story to find common ground.
I will not explain how I know, or am good at, or am otherwise qualified to do x,y or z.
I will avoid the use of first-person personal pronouns at all costs (I, me, my, mine, we, us).

Here’s what I will do instead:

In all the moments I would usually insert a self-centered story, I’ll ask:

Talk more about…
Sounds like there’s more…
Why not?
Why is that?
Why do you think…?
Why do you suppose…?
Why is that important?
And then?
And that’s going well?
And that’s not going so well?
And that’s important to you?
That’s not what you expected?
What did you do next?
What do you intend to do next?
What would you have preferred?
What if X happens, instead?
What if you could wave a magic wand?
What if it doesn’t work?
What else?
How did that happen?
How did you fix it?
How did you manage that?
How will you change…?
You’re ready?
You don’t think that’s a good idea?
You don’t know?
Who else was there?
Who helped you with that?
Who do you think can help you?
Was that hard?
Was that what you expected?

And the only acceptable uses of personal pronouns:

How can I help?
What can I do for you?
What would you like me to do next?
I don’t know.

Wish me luck. And play along if you like!

I’ll report back on this in a week…

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