Empathy and Sincerity, resurrected from mid-2009

Introductory note:  It was quite humbling to read this 10+ years later. I was totally “putting on airs”! Please don’t overly judge me.

Last week I was in a meeting about a topic on which I am relatively inexpert. As a student for life, this was an exciting opportunity for me to get smart in an area that was very intriguing. As a naïve observer, I also had the unique opportunity to bring a fresh perspective. We all tend to see things a very specific way when immersed in a subject matter and it’s never a bad idea to have an outsider challenge orthodoxy. Very early on in the meeting, my emotions got the better of me when I caught two experts exchanging glances and rolling their eyes. From a personal perspective, it irritated me. On behalf of my team (also naïve to the topic), I felt protective. It later struck me that I was experiencing the unique opportunity of sitting in my clients’ shoes. As consultants, it’s implicit in our mandate to exude expertise and wisdom. It’s very easy to fall down the slippery slope of pedagogy, arrogance, and dismissal of customers as “ill-informed”. I’ve done it more times than I care to admit.

On a half dozen occasions, I’ve had the professional development conversation related to pointed client feedback. Typically, it revolves around clients perceiving us as arrogant, condescending, or argumentative. The feedback often elicits questions related to expression. “How can I change my wording?” “How can I soften my tone.” I think these are the wrong questions. The right question is “How can I change how I feel?” If you feel arrogant and condescending, no amount of effort spent on altering expression (verbal, tonality, body language) is going to prevent your client from realizing this. I think the best questions are “why do I feel superior?”, “what can we learn from our client?”, and “how can we take advantage of our client’s fresh perspective.” The intent is not to make your client feel better or differently, but to truly appreciate and prize his/her perspective.

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