Really? Is that all you know about me?

Every one of the people in our lives – our team and colleagues, clients, suppliers, competitors and everyone we know personally – is facing challenges and shouldering burdens on a scale from light to unbearable.

Their kids may be suffering mental health problems, their parents sick, their partner injured, their community affected by droughts or fires, they’re struggling financially, they’re grieving lost loved ones, they’re exhausted and stressed or maybe the renovations are simply taking forever and they’re just damn sick of using the outside dunny in winter. As the Buddhists would say, ‘life is suffering’.

We all handle what life throws at us differently. Some are philosophical or stoic, some drop out or sacrifice salary for greater life balance, some drive themselves harder and faster to resolve the situation and achieve their goals, some have faith in a greater being, some buckle under the weight, some escape into screens, alcohol, prescription or non-prescription drugs, some deny the problem and some thrive under pressure. There are as many ways of dealing with life as there are people doing it. That’s 7.5 billion at last count.

Ultimately, in the workplace, outcomes need to be achieved regardless, but what engagement and loyalty do we incite when we try to understand a little? As a manager, service provider or industry peer at a conference, what difference can we create for the people around us and the relationships we forge, when we bother to get to know people a little deeper, and can offer solutions or solace, a human connection, a small sense of care? It’s not our job to be therapist, but to understand someone’s business as well as personal goals, to be entirely avaricious about it, makes good business sense, as discussed in our previous blog.

So with the first blog in this mini-series on ‘getting to know your audience’ covering the issue of why it makes such a bottom line difference to bother to get to know people, the question that naturally follows is ‘what do we need to know?’ What would be helpful for us, and indeed for them, to understand about our direct reports or clients, at a different level from others, that will make a measurable difference to both of us?

You can literally download lists of ‘100 questions to get to know your clients’ and many will break down the list into cute acronyms, alliteration or other sub-headings. 

There’s of course the SPIN selling technique that has us explore the Situation, Problem, Implications and Needs of our client. 

Nick Souter in his book on ‘Dynamic Writing’ breaks down the 4 Ps of knowing your reader being:

  • Personality – which dictates how they like to give and receive information
  • Prejudices – created via their experience, beliefs and attitudes
  • Pressures – exerted on them at the current time
  • Position – where they stand on the changes you may be suggesting.

Meanwhile the 6-pointed star technique of questioning and understanding has us explore the 6 major prefixes of questions – who, what, why, when, where, how – and brainstorm 4 or 5 questions using each prefix, which stretches us to consider questions we mightn’t normally ask.

Needless to say, there’s at least another hundred theories of questioning techniques.

What I’m curious about is what we’re trying to achieve ultimately in all of this. The bottom line is that if it’s an external stakeholder, we want to understand the business strategically and operationally as well as the individual’s personal motives and concerns, while internally we equally need to understand their business drivers and KPIs as well as their personal priorities and cares. 

In other words, there’s the business and personal, tangible and intangible, measurable and immeasurable, physical and emotional factors that make up a person and a business.

Ultimately it boils down to who are they? What’s their situation? What do they need personally and professionally? And how can I help?

The questions therefore, need to be both planned and improvised; thoughtful and intuitive; shallow and deep; practical and abstract. We need to spend time in the quiet of our own being, considering what matters to them and what questions will best serve to delve into their needs and we equally need to be fully and deeply present on the day, to their answers, interests and micro-expressions.  

In his new book, Stillness Is the Key that I recently ordered, Ryan Holiday draws on timeless Stoic and Buddhist philosophy to show why slowing down is the secret weapon for those charging ahead. I can’t yet anticipate what I’ll find in those pages, but what speaks to me just from the title, and from what I know of ‘slow living’ and ‘self-leadership’ is that time out and time alone give us the breathing space to think creatively, broadly, tangentially and laterally prior to a meeting, such that we can serve ourselves and those around us in a very different way from when we’re in hyper-productive, list-ticking, linear, auto-pilot-thinking mode. We access thoughts, ideas and questions that take us deeper and ultimately open the opportunity to get to know the people around us more authentically and powerfully than the list of 100 questions ever will.

It’s a theme you would’ve heard before if you’ve ever been involved in training with me: intention counts. People sense our intention like a dog smells fear. When we’re genuinely interested in the other person’s business and life people feel it, and trust and rapport follow. When we’re using a technique or going through the motions, it has the opposite effect on the relationship. Shallowness verging on distrust. 

So do your online research or chat with people you know who know them, to find out something about them in advance, start to form your questions, sit quietly with your list and thoughts, let them percolate and evolve and then show up fully for the other person on the day for a deeper, more real and fruitful relationship.

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