#66: A Lesson in Leadership
One Idea. One Challenge. Once a Week.
“Help people to exhale.”
~ Mark Goulston, Just Listen
I’m selling used computers over the phone.
I work from a factory basement in downtown Cleveland. The windowless rooms hold countless computer parts and lots of cubicles. Fancy degrees don’t matter here. Neither does your past. Anyone who wants a shot at earning the big bucks gets the chance.
Each salesperson has their own binder filled with leads. The job is simple yet tough: cold call your leads and sell them computer hardware.
Halfway through the day a sales rep named Mike stands up and throws a temper tantrum. Everyone knows he has a reputation for outbursts.
One of the owners is a huge guy named House. He walks into the room and asks what’s wrong. Mike says his job is impossible because his leads are weak.
I stop what I’m doing and turn to watch the scene unfold. I notice other sales reps do the same. We secretly exchange excited glances.
House is going to put Mike in his place, we’re sure.
But he does the opposite. He pulls up a chair and sits down.
“Tell me more,” he says.
Mike lets off steam. House listens. He agrees with many of Mike’s complaints. Cold calling is tough. Lots of the leads in Mike’s binder won’t go anywhere. Many of the phone numbers are old. Hearing “no” over and over again sucks. Sales is nerve-racking.
I see that Mike appreciates what House is doing. The anger begins to fade. As Ethan Kross writes in his book Chatter:
We want to connect with other people who can help validate what we’re going through, and venting really does a pretty good job at fulfilling that need. It feels good to know there’s someone . . . who cares enough to take time to listen.
The simple act of venting to someone else helps us feel appreciated. And it can work like an anxiety mindsweep. By bringing stresses to light we lessen the pain they cause us.
But venting is not enough. Studies show it makes us relive bad experiences and wires our brain to be more likely to get angry again. If House politely listens every time Mike gets mad and does nothing else, it encourages Mike and others to get mad more often.
Anger begets anger – unless we learn something new and positive along the way.
Psychologist Jennifer Parlamis pioneered research showing that useful feedback and guidance following a venting session can lead to substantive growth. The person venting can learn to reframe how they think about and respond to their emotional triggers. Which makes it less likely they’ll become angry in the future.
House explains to Mike that the company is a true meritocracy. Everyone begins at the same place. House started exactly where Mike did. “Nothing matters except how hard you work and how well you pitch.”
Sales is a numbers game. House gets Mike to agree that even though most pitches fail, as long as we get in enough pitches we’ll find success. And the better a pitch is, the better the numbers will be.
House offers to help Mike improve his pitch. Mike says it’s fine: “My problem is the leads! If I had better leads, I’d be killing it!”
“There are no special leads,” House says. He offers to switch binders with Mike. Mike stares at him in silence.
House points to the open binder on Mike’s desk: “This is your next call?”
“Mind if I give it a shot?”
House sits in Mike’s chair, picks up Mike’s phone, and – with Mike standing over him – calls the next lead.
House must know that everyone is watching.
His pitch is flawless. And his luck is remarkable. Not only does someone answer the phone, their company needs a new computer system.
A few weeks later House closes them on a $50,000 sale.
No one complained about their leads after that. Not even Mike.
I’ve returned to this moment many times in my head. We’ve all had to deal with people like Mike. And we almost always handle them differently than House did. It’s easy to criticize. To punish. To mock.
If House reacted by scolding Mike, what would that have done for him? And for the morale around the office?
Today I run my own company. Our clients hire us to transform their public speaking and listening skills.
My role, at its core, is to give them space to exhale. To take the time to understand. And to help them on their path.
House’s example is one I still turn to for guidance. While I’ll likely never put on a masterclass like he did, I can do my best to follow his lead. We all can.
Help people to exhale and then see a better path forward.
The next time you encounter someone who’s frustrated or having an emotional outburst (even in your direction), resist the urge to get upset or chastise them. Instead ask yourself:
How can I help them exhale?
How can I lead by example?
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