The Therapist and the Storyteller
How to read the room with very little data.
I’m a technologist at heart. You would think I’d be all in on AI and such — but I’m not. I find artificial intelligence and machine learning (in its current state) unimpressive. There, I said it.
The major shortcomings of AI is that it requires gargantuan amounts of data to be intelligent, and that it can’t accurately read the needs of its audience. We have a Google Home, and its ability to pluck an answer off the web is incredibly impressive. But let’s face it. Intelligence — that’s a stretch. Machine learning is just brute force ingestion and synthesis of data.
The hallmark of human intelligence is to create outcomes (e.g., answering questions, or building a connection with someone) with very little data. To do this, you have to be able to play two distinctly human roles: that of the therapist and that of the storyteller.
Reading the room
One of the most elusive and ambiguous aspects of human intelligence is the ability to read other humans in a room. Reading people’s tiny signals and using those signals to build a deliberate path forward is truly unique to humans. There are tips out there about how to read a room of people (often potential clients), but it is a skill you can grow only by spending a lot of time interacting with others.
Even better, you can really grow this intelligence if you’re constantly put in settings where you’re seeking an outcome that isn’t guaranteed. If your task is to get others from point A to point B, then you are exercising a different set of skills. The far more challenging puzzle is getting others in the room to want to get to point B, on their own.
Reading the room accurately is essential to selling the right solution to the right client. At Postlight, we often mention how we’re a consultative sell. We don’t have a mattress or car to sell you, and you aren’t here to buy one. We are meeting because you need to unlock a challenge in front of you. We listen, earn your trust, give advice, and most important, we sketch a way forward that you can connect with.
We think like a therapist and use a process like this:
- Before anyone is in the room, why are you meeting? Why were you given the meeting? What do people want? Are they just curious? Did you ask for the meeting or did they? In other words, what are the needs they are bringing with them into that room?
- Once in the room, what are the decision dynamics at play? Are the participants just reporting back to the real decision maker who isn’t even attending? Is it by consensus? Is it a reluctant audience that was told to attend? Think of each attendee as a node in a decision tree. Where are the key decision nodes?
- As the meeting gets going, don’t talk for a while — just listen. Ask open-ended questions. People love to talk about things in their domain: their problems, challenges, interests, motivations, drivers, and so on.
- Take it all in and, on the fly, edit your narrative in your mind. You may have a strong opinion, but if your job is to get the other side of the table to move, right now your opinion is secondary. As time goes by, step into the conversation little by little. Join their thread instead of pushing them to yours. You are a supporting actor in this act of the play.
This all leads up to this moment when you are going to take the conversation forward. When clients come to you with their narrative, it’s incomplete — that’s why they’re here! They take you up the story arc only to stop at the point of maximum tension — where they need your services. If you observe closely, you’ll pick up on this subtle shift from what’s happened so far to what they hope can happen in the future. This is where you come in.
Nonfiction, meet fiction
You’ve been filing away their backstory replete with their concerns, anxieties, and struggles for the first 30 minutes. You’ve been closely paying attention to what they care about (even if they’re caring about the wrong things). Now it’s your turn.
You are an anti-therapist in this critical moment. Your job is no longer to ask leading questions to reach moments of catharsis. You’ve done enough of that up to this point. Now you will take them on a journey (the design and tech world love the word journey) that draws a future state where the client comes out of the pain and suffering as heroes. You, human reading humans, lower the story arc’s tension, driven by your clear and confident picture of the best way forward.
Here are a few tips for that downward slope in the story arc:
- Don’t take the mic too soon. This is a fatal error that I often see. If you move too quickly into that future state, you may lose people and potentially create more anxiety. They may not be finished with uploading the current state of things. You may still have more to learn. If they have more to say, let them say it. If they go astray, lead them back to the narrative with the right questions. But above all else, wait for that moment. How will you know when the time is right? You’ll see it in the room. They will go from presenter to audience in their demeanor and posture.
- Become singular in your message, bordering on frustrated. If you’re going to give guidance, you better believe in what you’re saying. When they pelt you with questions, answer them with a hint of frustration. When they ask you to take another path, tell them it would be a mistake (if you believe it will be). That passion in your tone will reveal to them they have a new team member, ready to fight for their needs.
- Cover the what first, worry about the how later. When you draw out that future state, defer the logistics and process for now. Draw a detailed picture of what that end state will be. It will excite them, and it will also serve another purpose: It will inform the strategy. Budget, team, time frames — all of these how factors will only add drag at this very moment. You want them excited about that end state. If they’re excited enough, they will move the earth to make it happen.
Intelligence requires empathy
I’m not really sure I ever want Amazon, Google, or any other tech giant to gain the subtle ability to read a room. Ad tech has been trying to read all the rooms in my house and all my devices for years now, and generally speaking, it’s not very good. “It’s been a while since you ordered toothpaste. Is everything OK at home?” It’s false and creepy (but let’s say it out loud: It works to some extent).
Before you can have true emotional intelligence, you must have empathy. Ad tech, recommendation engines, and the like are a form of artificial empathy. Our ability to pick up on and react to the needs and emotions of others is one of the highest orders of intelligence. That long pause between SMS messages during a tense conversation. That terse four-word email reply. The video call with long pockets of silence.
So much technology yet so little data to process. When humans go quiet, no technology has enough intelligence to beat our most basic instinct to connect: “Let’s get together in a (virtual) room and talk about it.”
Rich Ziade (@richziade) is Co-Founder and President of Postlight. Drop him a note at email@example.com.
Story published on Feb 10, 2021.