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Passion, People and Principles

The Person Behind The Mask

post # 56 — April 24, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations post

We are always dealing with two people whenever we interact with a single person. There is the person in their role, and the human being beneath the role. Whether it’s a client, a subordinate, a colleague or someone in your personal life, it’s going to be the human being, not the ‘person in role’ who is going to give you what you want and need.

A large part of success in business (and perhaps in life) in getting access to the human being behind the mask.

For example, clients like to pretend that they will buy through a logical, detached process, but don’t believe a word of it. It’s always (ultimately) going to be trust, confidence, comfort and chemistry that will -at the tipping point – win you the business.

If you don’t like getting to the really personal, emotional level, this is not all good news. Especially if, like me, you don’t have a natural proclivity for intimacy. My standard line is that I love audiences – it’s individual people I have difficulty with!

The role versus human being issue reveals itself when I do my consulting work. Very frequently, I will be facilitating or participating in a committee meeting to address an issue. I’ll ask “Any questions?” and, often, the room is silent. (We’re all in role-to-role mode.)

But as soon as we break for coffee, I get cornered in the corridor or followed into the bathroom (!) by people who want either to ask a really great question or tell me the truth they couldn’t tell me in the open meeting.

Until a year ago, I was also a member of the “smoker’s gossip club.” Banished to the sidewalk outside the building, there were always a few people sharing my addiction, and they would always begin to tell me what was really going on. Having quit smoking, I no longer have access to that form of insider information.

People will always tell you more in informal “off-the-record” situations than they will in meetings. Formal meetings are a ritual dance, not a sincere effort at problem solving.

Early in my career, I used to avoid one-on-one, personal interactions with clients. Now, I try to create situations (for example, pre-and post-meeting telephone conversations) where I can give people the comfort to tell me what’s really on their mind.

It’s still an effort for me, but I’ve learned that, to be effective, I’ve got to do it.

The world is filled with people not “clients” or “bosses”, and it’s the “people-as-peole” who are going to give you what you want, so you had better start working at understanding them – one at a time.

What approaches do other people use to break through the role interactions and get other people to reveal themselves and their true wishes, desires and concerns?


Carl Singer said:

By nature a taxonomist, I distinguish between “long term – team members” and “short term – meeting attendees”.

When one of my duties was facilitating large (20-30 people), critical account planning sessions (2 to 3 days long) where few people knew more than a handful of the others in the room, I spent what to some seemed an inordinate amount of time trying to get people out from behind their role, partly with “canned” exercises but mostly through setting and maintaining meeting tone and texture. With mixed success, frankly — there are, for example, some (international) cultural issues that come to play and some things take time — more time than was available. BTW – My favorite “canned” exercise is: “tell me three (non-serious) things about yourself — only two of which are true” — then asking the group to discuss / determine which is the fib.

When leading a long term project team, one thing I did was what I dubbed the “big bang” — I got everyone on my worldwide team together under one roof — and around the same dining table (even had a barbeque at my home) to build relationships. This proved invaluable after we returned to our four corners of the world. That I still correspond with some of these people or have dinner with them when they fly to the states (now 7 years later) says much to me. Even something as simple as starting each meeting with a “joke of the day” can be helpful. An otherwise shy person might come out of their shell prepping for their turn to make us all laugh.

posted on April 24, 2006

Bill Peper said:

Three brief thoughts on this topic:

First, allot time to enable these informal meetings.

Second, develop a habit of asking questions that demonstrate that you truly care about the person you are addressing (What is your favorite part of your job?; What can I do to help you become more successful?)

And third, demonstrate that you are open to conducting a real conversation that will solve the current problem or challenge. During a session I facilitated last week, I told three short stories to help launch a brainstorming session on how the sales staff could bring more value to the company without spending any additional money.

posted on April 25, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Carl, Bill,

These are really useful tips. Please keep contributing when you can! I’m sure it’s appreciated by the readers of this blog.

posted on April 25, 2006

annette said:

David – I am enjoying your blog enormously (only found you recently) and this topic is of particular interest to me.

The person behind the mask also applies to the consultant and like a previous commenter, I used to use canned exercises – I no longer do that. When, as consultants, we take the risk to be ourselves and step out from behind our own roles, that’s the point at which our clients have the opportunity to step in. If it’s too scary for us to contemplate why would we expect it of our clients?

I recently worked with an inter-departmental group from an academic environment who wanted to talk about their communication and writing style. They were a new client and I realised I was very nervous about embarking on the assignment with them. I took the risk of sharing that feeling at the beginning of our time together. It turns out that each of them were also scared of the day — feared being exposed in front of their colleagues and returning to “school” to have their “homework” assessed.

My revelation allowed them to bring the only thing they all had in common into the room — the evaluation at the end of the event indicated that this particular intervention on my part was the most significant contributing factor to their ability to use the resource of the day.

posted on April 26, 2006