• Bob Ewing

How to really understand a person


“You never really understand a person until you consider things from…[their] point of view.”

~ Atticus Finch, talking to Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird


Imagine for a moment that you’re Doug Dietz.


You design machines for General Electric. You’ve spent the past two years building a new MRI scanner for hospitals, and it’s finally done. You’re thrilled. You go to the hospital to see it and get so excited you do a happy dance. Then you wait to watch the first patients arrive.


A little girl walks down the hallway with her parents. She’s crying. You hear her dad lean down and say, “We’ve talked about this. You can be brave.” You watch as she goes into the room, sees your creation, and freezes in terror.


Suddenly your perspective changes. For the first time, you notice the ominous colors, the scary sounds, the giant warning sign, the flickering lights.


You realize that for two years, you never once looked at your machine through the eyes of a scared child. You’re heartbroken.


What do you do now?


Here’s what Doug did. He assembled a team that understood children. Their mission was to make MRI scanners appealing to kids.


Their solution: Turn the scary machine into a jungle adventure. Or a spaceship. A submarine. In fact, they did all three. And more.


The result? GE’s Adventure Series is a triumph nationwide. Participating hospitals find their young patients getting onto the scanner table ten times faster. And the need to give them anxiety medication has plunged.


Doug stumbled upon a fundamental truth. The better we understand how other people see things, the more likely we are to connect with them.


This is often easier said than done.


The head of a fundraising team reached out to me a couple weeks ago. He had just received feedback from a prospective investor who did not mince words.


“He told me my pitch was terrible.”


I knew the fundraiser put hard work into his pitches. They are typically a big success. I asked what he did differently this time. He said, “nothing!”


And that was the problem.


He used an old pitch on a new audience. It worked so well in the past, he figured it would continue to work. After a quick chat he decided, like Doug Dietz, to assemble a team that understands the new audience he’s trying to reach. And then build a unique pitch that appeals specifically to them.


The philanthropist Russell Conwell was a model on how to tailor presentations. He was world-renowned for his Acres of Diamonds speech, which he delivered more than six thousand times across several continents. Yet he never gave the same talk twice. He would arrive early, chat with the locals about town, and then fill his speech with their anecdotes and stories.


When we understand our audience’s perspective, and make it central in our work, we set ourselves up for success.

IDEA: The better we understand how our audience sees things, the better we can connect with them.
CHALLENGE: Think about one person you want to persuade. Imagine for a moment you are them. Try looking at the world through their eyes. Then see if you can find one new fact or story that highlights their perspective.

Doug Dietz likes to tell a story about Pirate Island, where patients have to “walk the plank” to a scanning machine disguised as a pirate ship. The room smells like piña coladas and has sand castles. The cabinets are tiki huts. There’s a pirate monkey swinging from a rope.


One day in the Pirate Island room, Doug was talking with the parents of a young patient who’d just had a scan. She kept tugging on her mom’s shirt. The mom turned to her and asked, “What is it, honey?”


The little girl looked up to her mom and smiled, “Can we come back tomorrow?”


This time, Doug cried. His team turned terror into joy.


*****


This article is part of my weekly newsletter series: One Idea. One Challenge.


Each Friday I share one idea and one challenge. The goal is for us to learn and grow together. View them all and sign up here.