Why Don’t We Just Listen for a Change

I was inspired to write this week’s post after watching an enlightening Ted Talk from Theo E.J. Wilson called A Black Man Goes Undercover in the Alt-Right. Don’t worry, this post is not to advocate for any particular position on the political and social spectrum. Rather it’s about the lost art of listening and communicating to understand one another. Theo rightly points out things that prevent us from understanding each other and I have added some of the principles of influence that make it easy to happen:

Online Algorithms

These algorithms begin to filter information to us that we already view and believe, an application of the principle of consistency. It’s no different than the Amazon recommendations that pop up based on prior purchase decisions and sites you’ve viewed. Isn’t it someone freaky how you can start to type in a Google search and the choices that appear almost always contain the exact search you need? It’s as if Google read your mind! This curating of information is constantly going on behind the scenes and may be limiting your worldview.

Media Outlets

We make active choices that narrow our worldview such as only watching Fox News or CNN to the exclusion of all other media outlets. We do so because other large groups of people like us – the principle of consensus – hold the same views. I try to watch MSNBC and Fox in equal amounts because it’s like viewing the world from the North Pole and South Pole. Doing so gives me a better view of the entire planet. Make no mistake, news outlets are run by human beings and have their own bias points of view so be wary.

Our Associations

We tend to hang out with like-minded people. This is a natural phenomenon – the liking principle – because we like people who are similar to us and it’s less taxing mentally to have conversations with people who think like we do.

Social Media

Online “conversations” aren’t really conversations at all. They’ve become forums to espouse views then vehemently defend them. This is one way the principle of consistency can lead us astray. For more on this I will refer you to a post I wrote years ago called Why Facebook Doesn’t Change Anyone’s Opinion.

I’m sure you can think of more things that limit our ability to understand each other. Here are some ideas to perhaps change this. By change I don’t necessarily mean your views have to change but, if you come to understand another person, their point of view, and can maintain respect for them, then isn’t that a good thing?

When was the last time you had a conversation with someone who was different than you, not to convince them of your point of view, but to simply get to know them and their point of view better? I find it’s best to do this in person, over coffee, a drink, or a meal, where there can be dialog instead of monologue.

Have you ever asked someone what it’s like to be them? Two conversations I’ll never forget happened with a couple of African-Americans; a coworker and my best friend. With my coworker, I asked her on a flight from Nashville to Columbus what it was like to be an African-American working at my company. She talked non-stop the entire flight and I had a new, enlightened point of view.

The other conversation was with my best friend after Barak Obama won the presidential election in 2008. You cannot imagine the pride he expressed at something he never thought he would see in his lifetime. I don’t believe in either case the conversations would have happened if I had not opened the door with questions. Give a safe place for people to express themselves and you’ll be surprised at what you hear.

What was refreshing in the Ted Talk was hearing Theo acknowledge that many people who held views completely opposite from his were still people just like him. He saw pictures of kids and families. He saw people who enjoyed activities and liked to have fun. They were humans who viewed the world differently. When we lose sight of other people’s humanity we’re in big trouble because we treat them as things to be opposed. We need not look any further than Nazi Germany and the Holocaust to see what people can do to those they consider less than human.

It was also refreshing to hear Theo acknowledge flaws in the thinking of people he more closely aligned himself with. Every side has flaws because they’re made up of human beings, all of whom are flawed.

Someone asked me recently if I thought our country was more divided than ever. My response was no because there was a time we were so divided we plummeted into civil war. We have an opportunity to turn much of our negativity and opposition into something better. In order to do that I believe we need to stop opposing each other, stop shouting each other down and start having real, person to person conversations. Steven Covey encouraged us to “seek first to understand, then be understood.” That would be a great starting place.  I encourage you this week, reach out to someone who is different than you and start a dialogue.

Principles vs. Techniques, Laws and Other Burdensome Rules

When I lead The Principles of Persuasion Workshop for salespeople I tell attendees that a sales technique is good unless you find yourself in a situation where the technique doesn’t apply. If all you know is a technique or pithy response but not the why behind it you’ll probably find yourself a loss. However, understanding principles let you know why those sale techniques work which opens up many more options and gives you quite a bit of freedom. I was reminded of this thought as I read the blog post “Burn Your Rule Book and Unlock the Power of Principles” by Eric J. McNulty. He wrote:

“Principles, unlike rules, give people something unshakable to hold onto yet also the freedom to take independent decisions and actions to move toward a shared objective. Principles are directional, whereas rules are directive. A simple example of a rule: ‘All merchandise returns must be made within 30 days.’ Contrast this with Nordstrom’s principle-based approach: ‘Use your best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.’ The former shows no trust in either the sales associate or the customer. The latter is exactly the opposite and encourages the frontline worker to build a relationship with the customer.”

What does “the return must be within 30 days” rule signal? It could be that the company doesn’t trust its customers. They feel they will be taken advantage of so they have to limit the chance of that happening. A fundamental distrust of people might say more about the organization than the customers.

The rule could also signal that the company don’t trust their employees to make good decisions. Perhaps they need to do a better job hiring the right people and then training them on how to make good decisions that benefit the customer and the company.

As I considered principles and rules I thought about how Jane and I raise our daughter Abigail. We’ve always spent a lot of time talking with Abigail from the time she was very little. We didn’t want to just teach her right and wrong, good and bad. Rather, we wanted her to understand why we believed some things were good and some bad, and what made something right or wrong. Granted, these concepts are very subjective but we all possess subjective values and we pass our values along because we believe they’re good to live by.

My verification that we were on the right track came as Abigail approached her 16th birthday. My mom told me she was having a conversation with Abigail about getting her license and her curfew. Abigail told my mom that she didn’t have a curfew to which my mom responded, “Oh you better believe you do.” Abigail told her again that she didn’t have a curfew and again, my mom insisted she did, along with other rules. Then Abigail said, “No grandma, I really don’t have any rules but I wouldn’t do anything to break my parents trust.” Wow! That’s exactly what Jane and I would have hoped for. She wasn’t focused on the minutia of following rules but simply wanted to maintain a good relationship with us.

We’re not as involved in church as we used to be and I know church gets a bad rap quite often for reasons too numerous to list here. Church can seem like a rule based life to define good and bad but that’s not how I see it. When it comes to living right I believe this passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “For the whole law is fulfilled on one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” That’s pretty simple just like not breaking parent’s trust and just like using your best judgement. If something goes wrong following these simple principles then you have a coaching opportunity with your child or employee.

I encourage you to give thought to this idea this week. If you’re a parent, manager or run a company are you loading people down with rules or helping them understand why you want them to do what you’ve asked them to do?  George Patton once said, “If you tell people where to go, but not how to get there, you’ll be amazed at the result.” Tell your kids and employees where you want them to go, give a few guiding principles and they might just surprise you.

Risk, Reward and Following the Crowd

A little over a month ago I wrote a post I titled Everyone’s Doing It: The Impact of Consensus. It provoked quite a reaction, especially on LinkedIn. Here’s a small sample of comments from readers:

“It’s called groupthink. Look it up. Don’t hide in the flock of sheep. Emerge the solitary extrovert with an independent brain!!”

“Consensus is not a reality- it’s an abstract concept. Dissent is always essential.”

“Lemmings…”

“Consensus is an effective (cowardly?) way to hide from having to face the fact that no innovation took place because of consensus, but in spite of it.”

If I had to characterize most of the response it was resistance to the idea of consensus, following the lead of others. People don’t like to think of themselves as followers but we all follow more than we realize. It’s why we generally buy Amazon products that are rated four and five stars and avoid products that primarily get one or two star ratings. It’s why we tend to go to crowded restaurants instead of empty ones. And seldom do we go to movies that get poor reviews. (An exception to that might be movies that “critics” pan because the views of “critics” are often contrary to the average moviegoer.)

The subject of consensus (a.k.a. social proof) came back to awareness as I watched Ray Dalio’s Ted Talk “How to Build a Company Where the Best Ideas Win.” Dalio is a well-known hedge fund manager and what caught my attention were his comments about risk, reward and following the crowd.

In a nutshell, Dalio told the audience when it comes to investing following the crowd, the market, won’t make you rich. Why is that the case? It’s like riding in a bike race and staying in the pack. You can do okay but you won’t win being in the pack the whole race. The people who are willing to take a risk and break from the pack have a chance to win but there are risks that could lead to big time failure too. And so it is when it comes to investing. Breaking from the market and conventional wisdom might help you make a lot of money but it could also result in big losses.

Why don’t more people break from the pack? Because human beings are generally risk averse. Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on loss aversion. Kahneman and his late partner Amos Tversky statistically proves humans feel the pain of loss anywhere from 2.0-2.5 more than the joy of gaining the very same thing. Consider for a moment the safety of the crowd combined with the aversion to loss most people feel and you see why the so many generally play it safe and go along with the crowd.

Are there exceptions to the rule? Absolutely! I’m sure as you read this you can recall times when you went against the grain. We generally do that when we’re convinced we’re right, regardless of what everyone might say or do. That same sense of certainty is what leads some people to go against the crowd and gamble on their dream job, go for broke in the stock market, or passionately pursue their dreams. That’s how some people make it big. But don’t be deceived, far more people don’t land their dream job or become wildly rich because it’s hard and the odds are against them. After all, if all it took was the courage to take the first step or determination to do the work then everyone would be going for it and everyone would be rich. But that’s not the case because the greater the payoff the greater the risk and as we’ve already seen, most people are loss averse.

This post isn’t intended to discourage you from pursuing great things. On the contrary, it’s intended to open your eyes about what may be holding you back. Hopefully after reading this some readers will realize why they’ve not already taken that first step and decide to go for it. Even if you fail, there may be great things in store for you. I’ll end with the famous quote from Teddy Roosevelt on this subject:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Fan Psychology and Your Favorite Sport Team

This past weekend college football officially kicked off its season and Thursday night the NFL will do the same. There were some big games (#1 Alabama vs. #3 Florida State) and amazing comebacks (UCLA down 44-10 late in the game came back to beat Texas A&M 45-44). There are few things in life that people are more passionate about than their favorite sports teams. Football is king in the United States but in the rest of the world soccer dominates the landscape.

With passion comes some interesting psychology. For example, people will like others who cheer for their team with virtually nothing else to go on. That’s the principle of liking in action. When we find one thing we have in common with someone else, especially when it’s something we’re very passionate about, it’s easy to like them because we view them as being like us.

The principle of consistency comes into play when people make public statements about their team then feel pressure to back up those statements no matter what the facts may be. For example, I have a relative who is a big Michigan Wolverine fan. I happen to be a huge Ohio State Buckeye fan. The two teams have one of the longest, most heated rivalries in all of sports which culminates in “The Game” every November.

When the Maize and Blue dominated the Buckeyes throughout the late 80s and all of the 90s my relative insisted it was because Michigan was a better team and program. The tables have turned since those days and over the past 15 years OSU had owned Michigan, winning 13 times. My relative can’t bring himself to admit Ohio State simply has a better program at this juncture. Instead he chalks up the OSU wins to cheating, poor officiating, rule breaking, luck and just about anything else he can think of. To be sure, there can be bad calls and an element of luck, but it’s hard to argue your team is better when they’ve been so thoroughly dominated for so long.

My relative isn’t alone when it comes to defending his team at all costs. As I noted earlier, to remain consistent it’s normal for people to vehemently defend their team and position at all costs.

One other bit of psychology you’ll see on full display, especially on game day, is confirmation bias. This psychological concept tells us people will search for evidence to confirm their position while denying evidence that contradicts their position. We’re all susceptible to confirmation bias when it come to our teams. Consider how often opposing fans will dispute calls despite clear evidence on instant replay.

Consider the following study cited in The Person and the Situation by Lee Ross, Richard E. Nisbett, and Malcolm Gladwel. The authors wrote, “In this study, Dartmouth and Princeton football fans both viewed the same film of a particularly rough gridiron struggle between their respective teams. Despite the constancy of the objective stimulus, the opposing partisans’ assessments of what they had viewed suggested that they ‘saw’ two different games. The Princeton fans saw a continuing saga of Dartmouth atrocities and occasional Princeton retaliations. The Dartmouth fans saw brutal Princeton provocations and occasional measured Dartmouth responses. Each side, in short, saw a struggle in which their side were the ‘good guys’ and the other side were the ‘bad guys.’ And each side thought this ‘truth. ought to be apparent to any objective observers of the same events.”

Later the authors wrote, “This polarization effect, it seemed, occurred because the subjects in both partisan groups tended to accept evidence supportive of their own position uncritically, while at the same time critically scrutinizing and ‘explaining away’ evidence that was equally probative but that ran counter to their position.”

So, what’s the point here? Sports brings out passion in people. You’ll be accepted by those who cheer for your team and reviled by those who don’t…at least on game day. When it comes to “convincing” someone about the superiority of your team save your breath because it’s like trying to teach a pig to sing – you won’t succeed, you’ll upset the pig, and you’ll get frustrated in the process.

That’s What She Said but Not What He Heard

If you were a fan of The Office you know Michael Scott, the manager of the Dunder Mifflin paper supply office in Scranton, PA, was fond of saying, “That’s what she said.” Michael’s references usually had a sexual overtone but don’t worry, that’s not where I’m going. I’m also not going to talk about miscommunication between men and women although, according to some people we’re from different planets.

I’d like to talk a little about the sender-receiver model of communication. This is important because two people can say exactly the same thing and get entirely different results. In the most basic sense we can break down verbal communication as follows:

Sender

  1. What they actually said (words)
  2. What they think they said (words + tone + body language)

Receiver

  1. What they actually heard (words)
  2. What they think they heard (words + tone + body language + prior experiences)

If you want to become a master of persuasion you have to understand the sender-receiver dynamic and be able to adjust accordingly or else you’ll fail more than you need to. Let me lay out a scenario.

You’re in the airport and have a tight connection for your next flight. If you miss it there’s only one other available flight to get you in on time for an important business dinner. The gate agent has just informed everyone your flight is delayed by 30 minutes. You have to make a decision about whether or not to gamble and stay on your assigned flight or try to get on the other flight. You’re stressed as you approach the gate agent and say:

“I have to get to [city] today so what are my options?”

The words are not in dispute but how you said it, taking into account tone and body language, can come across quite different than you might intend. You may have thought you were calm and polite when in reality you came across as angry and demanding. There’s what you “think” you said and what you actually said.

But that’s only half of the equation. What about the gate agent (receiver)? This person has their own filter. He or she might have just started their shift so they’re rested and calm. If that’s the case, and he or she maintains a positive attitude, they will probably “hear” you as someone who is expressing some nerves and in need of help. It’s likely the gate agent will be polite and helpful.

But what if the gate agent is at the end of a long shift, has dealt with several other delays and is tired of angry travelers? Under those circumstances they might be at the end of their wits. Through their filter you’re just another angry, demanding traveler who verbally abuses gate agents even though they have no control over what happens with planes.

As you can see, there are lots of ways this can play out depending on what you think you said and what the other person thinks they heard. The only thing you can control is yourself so taking a moment to make sure you’re calm, collected, positive, and clear about your needs is your best bet.

What about the gate agent? You don’t know what their filter is but a little empathy goes a long way if you hope they “hear” something different from you. Acknowledging they have a tough job might make all the difference. It could be as simple saying, “I bet it’s been a rough day with another delay to deal with,” before sharing your needs.

Never forget, beyond the words and principles of influence you use there’s more going on than meets the eye. Taking a moment to consider how you’ll come across and how the other person might receive you is always a good investment of your time.

A Top Down or Bottom Up Approach to Selling

There’s old saying that applies to persuasion and selling, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” I don’t actually know anyone who’s ever skinned a cat so I have no idea how many ways you can do it but I’ll trust there are multiple ways. When it comes to persuasion there are many approaches you can use to hear “yes” more often.

What I’ll share this week is directed towards salespeople but the application goes beyond just sales. When it comes to landing a sale, there are a couple of ways you can approach it: top down or bottom up.

Top Down. Sometimes you want to go for it, pull out all the stops and be bold. After all, you have no chance of hearing “yes” if you don’t ask for the sale. Too many salespeople censure themselves with a belief that the prospective client will never go for their top of the line proposal. What they end up doing is reducing their offer…and their chances of making the sale.

I’ll give you an example from my industry – insurance. I can tell you from more than 30 years of experience that far too many people are underinsured when it comes to their homes, cars, businesses, and lives. Here are just a few reasons this happens:

  1. People feel “forced” to buy insurance. The state says they have to insure their car and the bank that holds their mortgage requires them to insure their home.
  2. Laws require business owners to carry certain coverages like workers’ compensation.
  3. Nobody wants to contemplate the end of life so the decision for life insurance is put off again and again.

Because people don’t like to buy insurance they can be quick to dismiss coverages and suggestions from their insurance agent. It’s always in the best interest of the customer that the agent recommends the policy and coverages he or she believes will afford the proper protection. During my time in the insurance industry I’ve never heard someone say after a loss, “Darn! My agent sold me the right coverages and I’m fully protected!” However, many people have said, “Damn! My agent didn’t sell me the right coverage (or amount) and now I’m paying out of my own pocket!”

By offering the right policy and coverages up front the agent risks being rejected and that’s okay. First, never underestimate that some people will buy what’s presented because they recognize it’s in their best interests to do so. If the individual rejects what’s presented the agent has the opportunity to engage what’s known as “reject and retreat.”

If someone rejects your initial offer and you step in with a more moderate offer, one that still affords the essential protection they need, the likelihood that the prospect will say “yes” to the second proposal is higher than if you’d have started with it outright. Why? Because of the principle of reciprocity. This principle of influence tells us people feel obligated to give back to those who first give to them. In the case of rejection, when you make a concession, take a step to the middle, quite often people will make a concession too and meet you part way.

My advice to salespeople is always this – don’t censure yourself! Put the proposal on the table that you believe is right for the customer. When you do so, anticipate they might reject it and be ready with reduced offers you can use in case you hear “no.” Anticipating “no” is not pessimistic, it’s strategic because it allows you to strategically engage reciprocity.

Bottom Up. Sometimes it’s best to tackle the situation from the opposite direction. There might be reasons you can’t go for the whole enchilada because it will surely result in hearing “no” without any fallback options. This might happen because:

  1. You don’t have enough experience with the type of account you’re trying to write.
  2. You don’t have a strong enough relationship with the business owner to warrant going after all the policies associated with his or her business.
  3. The main part of the account comes up for renewal at a different time.

Your best opportunity under these circumstances would be to try writing something smaller like the prospect’s home and auto or part of their business account (auto, worker’s compensation, etc.). The reason you want to approach the sale in this manner is to get your “foot in the door.” If you write any business for the prospective customer you become their agent. Assuming you do a good job for them that little step forward will make it easier for them to give you an opportunity on the bigger parts of their insurance package.

The psychology behind this approach is the principle of consistency. This principle of influence alerts us to the reality that people feel internal psychological pressure and external social pressure to be consistent in what they say and do. Once you’ve become someone’s agent it’s a consistent next step to see if you can help him or her with their other insurance needs. Now the whole enchilada is within sight!

Persuading a person isn’t always as simple as some would lead you to believe. Due to situational factors and individual differences you can never predict what a single individual might do any more than a doctor can predict which person will live a long life. However, just as a doctor can confidently predict more people will live longer if they live healthy lifestyles, we can confidently say more people will say “yes” when you correctly tap into social psychology. We can make this claim because there’s more than seven decades of research you can rely on to significantly increase the odds that you’ll hear “yes” when you make a request of another person.

So, next time you go into a sale consider whether or not top down or bottom up is the right approach. A little strategic planning could make the sale much easier.

Athletic Preparation Helps Prepare for Presentations

This week I get to address a few hundred people at the annual meeting of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of Arizona. I’ve been preparing for this talk for a month so I thought I’d let you know how I use what I’ve learned from athletics to prepare for big presentations.

Todd Alles, my high school football coach, used to tell players, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” You can’t afford to wing it when you stand in front of highly successful business owners and salespeople so preparation is key! But how do you prepare?

I start with this question; what would be relevant to this audience? For this group, it’s providing the best possible insurance protection for their clients. Knowing this I chose the following title – The Psychology of Persuasion: How to Ethically Move More Clients to Yes.

When I get an opportunity like this I view it as if I’m getting ready for an athletic competition. When I was in college I competed in powerlifting. For three years after school it was bodybuilding. From there I made a radical change and starting running marathons. My last competitive endeavor was taekwondo. Whether it was a preparing for powerlifting meet, a bodybuilding contest, the Boston Marathon, or black belt test, I always took the long view and put in a tremendous amount of time and energy into preparation.

I usually begin to prepare a month in advance for a big presentation. The basis of what I present is essentially the same – the science of influence – so I only need to tweak the opening and some of the studies I use. Making sure I have the right application and business examples is what makes or breaks the talk.

In addition to those refinements I meticulously review my power point slides. I’m a huge proponent of using big pictures and key words. There are no bullet points, lengthy text, or any sentences on the screen when I give a keynote. I only want visuals and key words that drive home the points I’m sharing. Remember, when you’re presenting you never want visuals or text to overshadow or distract from you or your message.

Back to athletics. I’m still into fitness and my daily regimen is typically this: in the gym shortly after 4 AM, 45 minutes on the weights, then anywhere from 5-8 miles on the treadmill. Throw in some stretching and I’m usually working out for a couple of hours every day.

How does this physical regimen help me? I view my training as getting fit for the day of the presentation. I want to feel I’m at my peak mentally and physically. When I’m getting ready for a presentation, training and watching what I eat both take on more meaning. For me it builds anticipation and excitement. By the day of the presentation I want feel like a horse at the Kentucky Derby in the gate ready to race!

As I train and when I drive I listen to my iPod playlist labeled “Training.” It as songs that get me in the right mindset for training hard and presenting well. When I’m not listening to music in the car I’m giving my presentation to myself out loud.

Something I’ve added to my routine is using my treadmill time to practice my presentations. I set this up by having my iPad on the treadmill with my presentation in front of me in pdf format. As I run I practice by giving my talk out loud. Doing this is great for a handful of reasons:

  1. Repetition – Just like athletes take practice reps, this practice ensures I’ll give the presentation at least 30 times before “game day” when I do it live for my audience.
  2. Control – Running and speaking forces me to control my breathing. When I finally give my presentation it’s a piece of cake doing it without running! If you have any anxiety about public speaking I highly encourage this approach.
  3. Timing – Like a football team doing a two-minute drill I’m able to track my presentation to the minute. This allows me to make sure I do it within the allotted time.
  4. Review – All this practice lets me continually review and refine every aspect of my talk. I continually peel away all the non-essential elements and pair everything down to make it a rich experience for everyone in attendance.
  5. Visualization – Elite athletes know that mental preparation can make the difference between a good and great performance. The same is true with public speaking. As I run and talk I imagine the audience in front of me and practice calling people by name.

One last thing to note – I don’t get nervous, only excited. People who describe nerves are often describing the same feelings as people who are excited. Reframing negative emotions into positive ones makes a big difference. After all, most people want to avoid things that make them nervous but nearly everyone wants to do activities that make them feel excited.

When I stand in front of a group of people I know they have choices. Once choice they’ve made is to be at the venue where I’m speaking. They’re giving me their time which is an investment on their part so I want to make sure it’s an investment that pays dividends for them. I appreciate it when someone compliments me on my speaking ability but what’s music to my ears is hearing, “I tried what you talked about and it worked! I’m enjoying more professional success and personal happiness as a result.” For me, that’s the equivalent of an athletic victory!

Everyone’s Doing It: The Impact of Consensus

“Usually, if everyone else is doing something then it’s probably the right thing to do.” I posted that in a graphic on my social media networks a few weeks ago. Several people disagreed with my statement so I thought I’d address it in this week’s post.

Let’s start with a quick review of what consensus is when it comes to persuasion. The principle of consensus, sometimes called social proof or peer pressure, tells us people’s thinking and behavior is heavily impacted by how other people are thinking and behaving. Those other people who influence us could be the masses or sometimes they’re just a few people who are like you or me. Either way, what others are doing has some degree of influence on me, on you, and on others.

Why is this psychological principle relied on so heavily? Over the course of evolution going against the crowd could have led to bad things. Consider the tribes people lived in long ago. If the majority decided to head south for the winter or move to a new location on the river, then deciding to not go with the larger group could have meant for a quick demise for an individual or small band of people. While we may not live in times where that’s the case, that psychology still applies to us today because the human brain is essentially the same as it was tens of thousands of years ago.

As I noted in the opening, a number of people disagreed with my statement. First let me say that you can never fully explain something in 140 characters or less so I’d like to point out a couple of things. Notice my statement starts with “usually.” That means not always and there are exceptions. For example; usually people who eat well and exercise outlive those who don’t eat well and exercise. But we can all think of exceptions to that rule where someone did all the right things and still died prematurely.

I also used the word “probably” because even when everyone is doing something that doesn’t mean it’s always the right thing. For a person with a bad heart running or other forms of exercise might be the worst thing they can do. And sometimes groups do things that aren’t very smart. We need not look any further than peer pressure where young kids experiment with drinking, drugs and sex.

One friend pointed out that most people used to believe the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. No disagreement from me that the masses were wrong on those examples. There are many more we could point to as well like this one from The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism by John C. Bogle, “17 of 18 analysts rated Enron a buy just a month before its collapse.”

We know lots of people lost lots of money following that advice. But let me ask this – if you had to bet tomorrow on what stock to buy would you feel more comfortable going with 17 of 18 experts or would you roll the dice on the one lone wolf? The lone wolf will be right some of the time but I’d venture to guess the person who consistently goes with the majority (consensus) will come out on top far more often than the investor who rejects the majority.

We’ve seen the rise in popularity of “the wisdom of the crowds” because we know two heads (or many more) are usually better than one. This is a big reason we still seen consensus routinely at work in our lives. In the information overloaded society we live in we don’t always have the time, skill or energy to do all the research for every decision so we rely on mental shortcuts to help us. Following the crowd is one of those shortcuts because it works out well most of the time. Having said that, if time and time again we realized the majority of people were wrong we’d stop paying attention to what everyone else was doing…but that simply isn’t the case.

Lastly, I will point to more than seven decades of research from social scientists on the impact of consensus. Despite my information overloaded life this is an area I have spent quite a bit of time studying and the data is clear – consensus is powerful because far more often than not, following the lead of others works out well for us.

Ask Yourself a Better Question

I like to write about whatever is top of mind. Sometimes it’s sales, leadership, coaching, social issues, and at other times it’s parenting. Quite often I write when I’ve learned something I want to pass along and that’s what this post is about – asking yourself better questions.

Over the years I’ve read a lot about self-improvement. That leads me to books on how our brains work, how fitness helps our bodies and minds, ideas for success, and so on. I believe one of the most important things we can do in life is to reflect on our own thinking so we can improve our response to the situations life throws at us.

On the recommendation of two people I highly regard I picked up a copy of Change Your Questions Change Your Life by Marilee Adams, Ph.D. I learned something unexpected so I want to share it with you today.

One principle of influence that is most impacted by the use of good questions is the principle of consistency. This principle tells us people feel internal psychological pressure and external social pressure to be consistent in what they say and do. Bottom line; we usually feel better about ourselves when our words and deeds align.

Most people fail to engage this principle because they tell people what to do rather than asking. When you tell someone what to do you’re not gaining a commitment. Consequently, when it comes to questions I often share this with audiences: Stop Telling, Start Asking.

When I started to read Change Your Questions Change Your Life I expected to build on the use of consistency. However, what stood out to me was not the questions I ask others but the questions I ask myself.

Let me illustrate. Let’s say you have an employee named Pat. He’s been with your company and part of your department for a year and a half. You brought him in with high hopes and initially were very pleased. But over the last four months his performance has dropped noticeably. Work quality has slipped and he’s missed some deadlines. Because of many factors you’ve not been able to spend as much time with him as you did early on so you’re not sure what’s going on with Pat. Recently he missed another deadline by two days which meant you had to work over the weekend to make sure everything was ready by Monday morning for presentation to your boss. Needless to say, you’re not happy about feeling rushed and working over the weekend.

What’s the first thought that goes through your mind? Consider these possibilities:

  1. What the hell is up with Pat?
  2. Did I make a mistake when I hired Pat?
  3. Pat has so much potential. I wonder what’s going on with him?
  4. I wonder if Pat’s performance drop is because I haven’t been able to spend as much time with him in recent months?

As is the case with so many of us it’s easy to quickly go negative because Pat’s declining performance hurts your team and is a negative reflection on you as his manager. If you go into the next conversation with Pat focused on questions like 1 and 2 how productive do you think that conversation will be? Will Pat feel like freely sharing if he senses negativity and/or a hostile tone?

Now consider questions 3 and 4. Do you think you’ll have a more productive conversation with these questions driving your thought process? I’m sure you can see Pat will be more open to sharing if he believes you still see potential in him and are concerned with his career.

The first two questions, or any negative and judgmental questions you may stew over, will send you down a rabbit trail looking for answers to confirm those questions. It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because it’s easy to find mistakes if you look hard enough.

What the hell is up with Pat? This is an exasperating question that will probably leak anger and frustration. While those emotions might be legitimate would you rather turn around his performance or get rid of him and start all over again with a new employee?

Did I make a mistake when I hired Pat? Our memories are short and our attention spans are even shorter. It will be much easier to focus on Pat’s recent performance and build a case in your mind that it was a mistake to hire him as opposed to reviewing the body of his work. Again, I ask, would you rather to turn around his performance or get rid of him and start all over again with a new employee?

Pat has so much potential. I wonder what’s going on with him? This acknowledges Pat has performed well in the past and seeks to find out what might have caused the recent change in performance.

I wonder if Pat’s performance drop is because I haven’t been able to spend as much time with him in recent months? While his drop may not have to do with your one-on-one time this is a less threatening opening than laying all the blame on him.

I hope you see the difference. The questions you ask yourself about people and situations impact your emotions, thinking and ultimately your behavior. This week I encourage you to pay attention to the questions you ask yourself. When you do, see if you can understand how they’re driving your behavior. Is it the behavior you want? Is it the most productive behavior?

Seldom can you change other people but you can change yourself. It begins with how you view and think about people and situations. Will you give it a try? What do you have to lose? What might you lose by not trying?

5 Books that Radically Influenced My Life

I’m a reader. I love to read. Funny thing is, when I was young I hated reading. That was probably a function of having to read certain books versus getting to read what I wanted to. Once my love of reading took over it was pretty much the case that I’d read a book a week. That pace has slowed down in recent years with the explosion of Ted Talks, podcasts and other media for getting good messages but I still read several books a month.

Because I read so much people often ask me my favorite books. What I’ll share with you are the five books that have radically influenced my life.

The Bible When I really began to take my Christian faith seriously I read through the entire Bible many times. In fact, I ended up writing my own commentary, a thousand-page Word document, where I put down thoughts about what I was reading and learning. My inspiration was to give the document to my daughter Abigail so she would know what dad thought about God.

I equate all the years of reading to eating and living healthy. What I learned day-to-day became the foundation of my thinking, actions, and shaped my worldview. I believe any good thing within me is a result of my relationship with God.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People I read Steven Covey’s best selling book in the early 1990s. The habit that struck me most was his admonition to “Begin with the End in Mind.” I took Covey’s advice and wrote a personal mission statement. In that document, I put down thoughts about how I wanted to be remembered when it came to my faith, family, personal well-being, and career.

The reason The Seven Habits was so influential was because I posted my mission statement and have read it, or parts of it, for more than 25 years. It’s been a guiding force in who I’ve become and who I’m still striving to become.

Influence Science and Practice I was introduced to Robert Cialdini’s work in 2002. His emphasis on how to ethically persuade people appealed to my moral side. The research based approach appealed to my analytical side. It was a match made in heaven!

It’s not uncommon for many people spend nearly half of their waking hours trying to persuade others. My goal with Influence PEOPLE is to help you enjoy more professional success and personal happiness. If you read Influence Science and Practice and apply what you learn you’re guaranteed to have more success and happiness. I confidently write that because the science proves you’ll be able to move more people (your boss, coworkers, direct reports, loved ones) to action.

Man’s Search for Meaning I’ve written about Viktor Frankl’s book on a number of occasions. The following quote stands out above all else in this great work, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

It sounds trite to say, “It’s not about what happens to us, it’s about how we respond.” However, when you read about Frankl’s account of the horrors he and others experienced but how so many found meaning in their suffering – some in death – you begin to realize life is about how we choose to respond.

The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs was written by Carmine Gallo. I took seven typed pages of notes on this book! As I read I would flip over to YouTube to watch Jobs present to solidify my learning.

The reason I add this book to my top five is because it had a tremendous impact on how I present. Presentation, be it in a workshop, keynote or when consulting, is primarily what I do with influence. Arguably, nobody did better than Steve Jobs so why not learn from the best?

To Do This Week: I highly encourage you to look into one of these five books. It’s my sincere hope that they have as much positive impact on your life as they’ve had on mine. If you can’t do that, how about sharing some of your book recommendations in the comments section. Thanks!