It’s a frantic Tuesday morning — I’ve been away for a week and a day, and just had a hellish commute, and my “to-do” list is longer than ever, with far too few items that will really make a difference in the business. An employee asks if she can have a word with me. She’s a rising star, someone who I met when she was still in college and who sought me and HB out to work with us. Of course I have time. We grab a “huddle room” and when the door shuts, she begins, “Look, before I say anything, I want to thank you for all the time you have invested in me, the opportunities you’ve presented, the work, and the training you have put me through. But I think PR’s just not for me. I actually got another job, starting a week from Friday.”
My blood pressure rises. Many words come to mind. I think about the iPad we gave her three weeks ago, the conversation we had a few weeks earlier where she said, “I’m not going anywhere,” and the time a few weeks before that, during her review, when I said, “Now that you’re starting to work closely with our clients, all I ask is that if and when you decide to leave — which is likely to happen one day — you give as much warning as you can.”
There are many ways I could react. I take a breath, and force myself to imagine how she feels, with her concerns, her inexperience at such matters. She must be very nervous. The moments leading up to this one must have been very hard for her. I smile, and the first thing I do is thank her for telling me. Then we talk about what happens next. I have some strong feelings about it, but I have no regrets about how I choose to handle the situation in the moment. And I know that later, if appropriate, I can share my feelings with her.
Skip a month. I’m on a Friday afternoon call with the HB content team and one of our clients. The client tells us how HB’s first draft of a document completely missed the mark. As a group, the HBers discuss next steps with the client and what we will do with Draft Two to rectify the situation. We hang up and all is well, though we all agree that in this case the client wants something very different than originally requested. That’s okay; let’s give him something he loves.
I’m still in the office late that Friday when the client calls me to reiterate his disappointment. I’m hungry and tired, getting over a bug, and eager to wrap up and head home for dinner and the weekend. The client pauses, and re-iterates his disappointment in several different ways. Each time, I am struck by how what he really wants has nothing to do with what he originally asked for. There’s a pregnant pause, then he starts in again, telling me that he expected far better work from my team.
I want to reply out of irritation and defensiveness, to argue that HB’s work product was on-point and explain how we delivered a perfect match for the scope of work that he had approved. I imagine the tone that I would use to deliver such a response — a tone that mixes pride with some scolding of my own, putting my client “in his place.”
Then I pause. I decide instead to listen to what my client really wants at that moment. I realize that he probably didn’t feel heard during our earlier call, and that the “scolding” he is giving me is helping to release some frustration. My response could either help or escalate his irritation. Perhaps for him, an apology matters most, and he hasn’t heard it yet. I heartily and sincerely apologize for disappointing him, and express how I can understand his frustration. I tell him that I intended to do everything in my power to ensure that the next draft makes him happier. By the time we hang up, he seems happier and I am thankful for the way I handled the situation. While I still feel some frustration, I have no regrets about my behavior in this situation.
In both these cases and many other similar instances, I was honest. I could see my own reactions bubbling up and know exactly how I would like to respond in a knee-jerk manner. Yet in the same moment, I also managed to carve out a part of myself that could hear the genuine feelings that my employee and client expressed — with compassion and without judgment. In each case, I made a conscious choice about where to place my attention: my own resistance and ego, or the other person’s feelings. Because I avoided getting swept up in the moment – because my conscious mind was able to see my unconscious reactions and which of my “buttons” were being triggered – I could make a conscious decision which helped advance each situation in a productive way.
I would not have been able to make such choices fifteen years ago. At that time, I did not know how to listen — either to myself or to others. Even now, I feel like a novice when it comes to listening, and I often fail. Yet certain practices, including meditation and contemplation, have helped to carve out a space between my emotional reactivity and my self-direction, my will-power. A space in which I can listen, and from which I can make effective choices.
“For millenia, the contemplative traditions within the world’s major religions have studied the landscape of the inner experience and practiced, in a precise and reproducible way, beneficial techniques to train the mind. Simultaneously, Western science has increased exponentially our understanding of the material world. Now an increasing number of scientists and contemplatives are collaborating in a search for a more complete understanding of human experience, finding as they do practical ways to benefit society and improve our lives.” Excerpt from “The New Science of Mind,” Jill Suttie, Shambhala Shun, March 2012
Business leaders, scientists, social leaders and even politicians are starting to understand how our fast-paced, outward-focused world hampers our ability to make the most of our time and keep a healthy mind — a mind capable of highly effective thinking, action and interpersonal communication.
Based on the last 30 years of social science, hard science and anecdotal evidence, new expressions are penetrating our vernacular: mindfulness, stress-reduction, consciousness, contemplative mind, healthy mind, meditation, emotional intelligence, integrative body-mind training, and more. Publications emerge faster than we can read or absorb them: from easy-read articles; such as “Meditation makes people more rational decision-makers,” by Elizabeth Weise, for USA Today ScienceFair; to more in-depth scientific studies, such as “Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation,” by primary author Yi-Yuan Tang in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; to books, such as Relaxation Revolution – Enhancing Your Personal Health Through the Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing, by Herbert Benson, MD and William Proctor, JD, of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and I note these only to demonstrate how the many facets of striving for a healthy mind are spreading through our culture at every level.
When I speak about marketing to clients, colleagues or even students, I translate the notion of “healthy mind” into the concept of listening. Sometimes that’s an easier concept to address: listening to the world, to others, and to yourself. My own burgeoning ability to listen stems directly from my commitment to pausing and contemplating on a daily basis — meditation.
In certain forms of meditation, you choose a single object of focus for a period of time. For instance, your breath. And then you notice what comes up to distract you from it, returning to the breath or other object of focus each time you notice the distraction. Even after years of meditation, I rarely manage to make it through more than three consecutive breaths before my mind sails off with any number of thoughts (some traditions call this “monkey mind”). Over time, though, I manage to shorten the interval between having a thought and noticing that I’m having that thought, and then returning to the breath. This is not easy — while a result might be increased relaxation, mindfulness meditation is hard work. And if you’re the least bit sleepy, forget it. Yet the payoff is huge: during the other parts of my day I regularly have the ability to notice my thoughts, with an awareness that allows me to choose how to react, as in the examples above. This is how I listen to myself, how I practice “listening in.”
Recognizing the cacophony of noise in my own mind, it’s no surprise that listening to anything else is difficult, particularly what I call “listening out:” listening to the people I work with and to the world at large.
Why is listening so important? In our marketing practices, we help our clients communicate with a wide range of audiences. Often we must fight the urge to base our marketing decisions on narrow glimpses of the world and our own reactions to those glimpses (not unlike fighting the urge to let emotional reactivity guide our own behavior in interpersonal matters). We read an article by a competitor, we hear a key-note address, we pass around a blog post or tweet… and suddenly we find ourselves marketing in response to that experience, but not in response to what we can learn by listening to the broader market and making more careful, deliberate decisions.
Just like “listening in,” real “listening out” is hard work. Take this marvelous New York Times article that Dawn Sullivan recently brought to my attention: “How Companies Learn Your Secrets.” The article gets into detail about how P&G learned to market Febreze, which started as a monumental flop despite its extraordinary effectiveness at doing what it was meant to do: kill odors.
Admittedly, most companies do not have the resources to listen quite as comprehensively as P&G did, employing researchers, Harvard Business School professors and hours of video-taped consumer behavior. But we can create a little space between our immediate reactions and our decisions, and in marketing campaigns, this can translate to millions of dollars saved or earned.
I began these thoughts with anecdotes about an employee quitting and a frustrated client. In any relationship and any kind of work, frustrations will arise, miscommunication will happen, and we will experience disappointment and failure. Yet these can all happen in the context of more or less healthy interactions, and more or less awareness of what might really be going on, and what might be the most effective way forward. As marketers, we pride ourselves on a kind of chameleon quality — the ability to imagine ourselves in a variety of target audiences’ situations. At the same time, our profession is filled with passionate people who have a tough time seeing beyond their own point of view. I should know, as I’m such a person. Yet even for me, pausing, listening, and getting in tune with my inner and exterior worlds helps me navigate numerous challenges, from market strategies to the frustrations of people I care about.
We all pick up techniques for reminding ourselves to get out of our own skins as we try to understand what’s really going on in our worlds. How do you make sure you’re really listening?