Friday, May 11, 2012
On March 25th, 1965 on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech during which he said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
I have always loved that sentiment. I believe fervently in its truth and have relied on it during difficult times, even when the length of the arc has seemed excruciating. I hope you will abide by that sentiment in your own life, Mackenzie, and that you’ll do your part to point the moral universe in the right direction. But how does that work as a practical matter?
When I lecture at colleges and universities around the country I often talk about the so-called “rule of 200”. In our Facebook and Twitter society, this guiding principle might now be more aptly named the “rule of 500”, but either way it basically boils down to this.
Each of us knows about 200 people with whom we interact on some regular basis. If I do something very nice for you or otherwise help you in some way, you’re likely to tell ten or twenty of those 200 people what a good person I am. But if I do something to harm you or to prejudice you in some way, you’ll tell all 200 people what a bad person I am and then go make new friends so you can bad-mouth me to them too.
Many years ago when I was practicing law, I found myself on the other side of a deal from a very inexperienced young attorney (we’ll call him Dick – not his real name). Dick was cocky to the point of arrogance, yet as we continued to negotiate it became clear to me that he was in way over his head, at least on one particular but very big deal point.
I got him to agree to something so advantageous to my client, and so patently disadvantageous to his, that in my heart I knew the right thing would have been to point out his glaring error and teach him the issue for the future. Instead, I called my client and told him what I had accomplished. The client was shocked and delighted, and I went home that night feeling like a hero.
The next morning I got a frantic call from Dick and his boss. Dick was chastened as his boss explained to me very respectfully that their client was furious and was threatening to fire the law firm.
I had taken advantage of Dick’s inexperience and I knew it. I felt badly, but since I had rushed to tell my client what a great job I’d done so I could take a bow, I now had a problem of my own. Yet I also knew that unless I figured out how to give the other side some relief the deal itself might be in jeopardy. More to the point, Dick’s employment would no doubt be in jeopardy as well, and I certainly didn’t want that on my conscience.
Long story short, I went back to my client hat in hand and disclosed what had actually happened. After plenty of grumbling, which could easily have been avoided had I done the right thing in the first place, my client relented. The deal now behind us, Dick called me and told me I had saved his job. He thanked me profusely, told me he would never forget my kindness, and promised that for the remainder of his career and mine I would have an endless supply of get out of jail free cards if ever I needed them. Fair enough.
Fade out, and then fade back in fifteen years later.
One day a young agent at my company came to see me in a panic. He explained that he had “fucked up royally” in a negotiation and that one of our clients was about to fire us because of his mistake. I had him explain the situation to me so I could help find a solution, and then asked who was on the other side of the deal.
You guessed it, my sweet daughter. It was Dick, who by now had become quite successful. I assured my young colleague that this would all work out fine and suggested we call Dick together. After some small talk I humbly acknowledged to Dick that my young colleague had made a material mistake in the deal, and that as a result we were in grave jeopardy with our client.
To my utter amazement Dick wouldn’t budge. He told us that a deal’s a deal and that our internal client management issue was not his problem. I was horrified. When we had called Dick, I’d had no intention of referencing what had happened those many years ago. I simply assumed that the universe was in alignment and that I’d call in my chit with no mention being made of the past either by Dick or by me. But nothing we said moved him, even when I suggested pointedly that I would consider his help a personal favor to an old friend from our early law days together.
Finally I asked my young colleague to step out a minute, and then told Dick that if he couldn’t find it in his heart to help us for the right reasons, he should at least honor the promise he’d made to me fifteen years earlier when I’d stepped up to save his job. He refused, and indeed we ended up losing the client.
Over the years I’ve used this example many times when lecturing about paying it forward, but truth be told I’ve never had it in me to divulge Dick’s real name. Lord knows I’ve been severely tempted.
Did Dick ever get his comeuppance? I don’t know. Maybe the real lesson here is that it’s not for us to keep the tally. Maybe how or when the arc of the moral universe bends, or even in which direction, shouldn’t be what guides our own moral compass. Maybe our moral energy is best spent on how we conduct ourselves.
And let the universe worry about this Dick or that one.
All my everlasting love,
Friday, May 4, 2012
I’m about to give you what may well be the best practical advice you’ll ever get.
I’m not suggesting that you can’t or won’t succeed if you don’t follow it. I am suggesting that if you follow what I’m about to tell you to the letter, you will be simply amazed at how people will flock to you in business and in life. I learned this lesson myself quite by accident and it’s made me a better husband, a better father, a better friend, and a better business executive.
If negotiating for a living has taught me anything at all, it’s that most people don’t listen during a conversation. It’s not that people are rude or disinterested by nature. It’s rather that most people are scared, and insecure, and a little self obsessed.
I’ll give you a few examples just to set the table.
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but most people are terrible with names. I’m convinced this is because when two people are introduced to each other, subconsciously each is more likely to listen for their own name than the name of the person to whom they are being introduced. The reason why two seconds later most people can’t remember the other person’s name is that they never actually listen for it in the first place.
Here’s another one. The last time you got in fight with a friend or a loved one, were you actually listening while they told you what was causing their anger and hurt? Or were you using the time that the other person was talking to formulate in your own head what you were going to say next?
Active listening is the great competitive advantage in life, my sweet daughter. Very few people actually do it, especially in stressful situations. If you can actively listen to what someone is saying to you when the chips are down you’ll be way ahead of the game. It allows you to stay in the moment and to use real time information in every context.
People are desperate to be heard. It’s hard-wired into the human condition. I have found that outside of politics, people usually don’t even care whether or not you agree with them. What they do care about is whether or not you hear and really understand what they are trying to communicate to you.
Many, many years ago I attended a weekend therapy seminar with a very pretty friend. I grudgingly admit that I was far less interested in growing as a human being than I was in spending time with this particular person. Yet in spite of my selfish intentions, the weekend changed my life forever.
At some point during the seminar, the moderator had us all do a mirroring exercise. Everyone was paired up and told to “role play” the thing they most wanted to say to someone who had injured them emotionally. So for example, I could pretend to talk to an old girlfriend. If I said, “Sally, you hurt me when you told me we could never have a future together and you didn’t care”, the person with whom I was partnered for the exercise would pretend to be Sally and would say, “what I hear you saying is” and then mirror my sentence exactly. If they got it even slightly wrong, I would re-state what I’d just said until they could mirror it verbatim.
Once it was established that my words and feelings had been perfectly mirrored, the other person would say the words “that makes all the sense in the world to me”, followed immediately by “if I were in your situation I would feel the same way.” That’s it. Not a single variation.
Under the watchful eye of the moderator, the exercise went on for the better part of an afternoon. People were crying, laughing, yelling, and hugging as the cathartic exercise played out over and over. It was as if these were the most profound words anyone had ever spoken. I couldn’t believe it.
Now at the time I was a brash, arrogant young guy who thought he knew everything. So at the break, I went up to the moderator and told him that with all due respect the exercise was bogus. I explained that while rote regurgitation of another’s words might work in an artificial therapy environment like this one, it would never work in the real world.
No doubt the moderator had been challenged like this in the past, because he smiled benignly and made me the following offer. He suggested that for the next thirty days I use the technique in my business and personal life exactly as we had done it that day. He said if I didn’t get results to my complete satisfaction, he would refund my money no questions asked. Who could pass up an offer like that?
The first few times I tried it I was awkward and embarrassed, certain that someone would call me on my “bullshit”, or ask me if I was on drugs, or worse. And yet to my utter amazement, the more I mirrored what people were saying to me; and the more I acknowledged that what they were saying made sense to me; and the more I suggested that in their position I might feel the same way, the more I got the results I wanted personally and professionally. I became the beneficiary of my active listening, and I was giddy with delight. It was like a parlor tick.
Needless to say I never called for my money back, and I’ve never looked back. The funny part, Mackenzie, is that if you do this consistently over time, you’ll learn that active listening isn’t a parlor trick at all. It’s wonderfully real. Actually listening to people will deepen your enjoyment and appreciation of them. The more you listen to people and mirror them, the more genuinely interested you’ll be in them. And they in you.
All my everlasting love,