Brent’s Breakdown – Episode 33: Hypothesis-Led Empathy

Note from Brent:

No question, if we are going to successfully motivate an individual customer stakeholder to take action inside their organization—to mobilize on behalf of our solution, or on behalf of a course of action that leads back to our solution—then we’ll need to make not just a rational connection with that individual, but an emotional one as well.

But emotional connections are hard. If we want to “connect” with someone on an emotional level, definitionally, that means we need to understand their emotional level right now.

And that requires empathy. Not just seeing the world through their eyes, but also *feeling* the world through their current emotional state.

But as well intended as many of us are to demonstrate that level of empathy, it can actually be kind of difficult. After all, how are we supposed to figure out how someone else feels about their world? Especially when our own projection biases tend to get in the way, leading to false assumptions based on our experience rather than theirs.

The answer is disarmingly simple: Ask them.


Video Transcript:

I think we’d all agree that in order to motivate an individual customer or stakeholder to mobilize or to take action on our behalf, or at least on behalf of a course of action that leads to our particular solution, among his or her colleagues across a large-scale, complex buying group, it stands to reason that we’re going to need to make not just a rational connection to that individual stakeholder, but also an emotional connection as well. If not an emotional connection with us, at least an emotional connection to that solution or course of action.

In order to make an emotional connection to a stakeholder, as critical as it may be, it can be kind of hard, can’t it? Because it means we have to understand what is their emotional state right now that we’re attaching to, that we’re connecting to. Either in order to change that emotion or to reinforce that particular emotion.

And I think we’d all agree that the heart and soul of this story then is the story or the idea of empathy. In order to connect to the emotional state of a customer stakeholder, we sort of have to understand their emotional state as it currently stands.

How do you do that?

Now, if you’ve sold for a long, long time, particularly in the same industry, same industry vertical, the same set of industry stakeholders, this comes kind of naturally because you’ve been down this road a number of times.

But what if you’re new to selling? Or what if you’re new to selling this particular solution or to this particular individual or to this particular industry vertical?

All of those things can potentially change that emotional sort of universe that you have to connect. So one of the things I’ve found is that in order to make that emotional connection, we have to first figure out where they stand right now. And to do that, you think, “Well, how am I supposed to get in their head and understand their sort of emotional state right now?”

The simple answer is to–well to ask them and to run right at it!

It’s like everything else in life, when you think, “How am I supposed to do that?” Just run right at it.

So what I have developed over the years is something that I ultimately have given a name to. I call it “hypothesis-led empathy.”

It is the way to be empathetic by testing different emotions and figuring out which ones resonate. So ultimately, if you want to be empathetic, if you want to display or connect on an emotional level, you have to kind of know what you’re connecting to.

So what I’ll do oftentimes is I’ll think about a whole series of conversations and a series of maybe deals that I’m doing or conversations that I’m having. I’ll ask across a number of different stakeholders and across a number of different companies. First thing I’ll do is, I’ll ask a representative stakeholder just simply how that feels. And I’ll lead with however it’s not “Tell me, how does that feel?” which is a little open-ended. I’ll lead with a hypothesis. It’s very practical. It might sound something like this: “I imagine that’s kind of scary, isn’t it?” or “I imagine that’s very frustrating.” or “Wow, you must be super excited!”

All of those would essentially be hypotheses of a particular emotional state.

Now, what I’m trying to do here is not necessarily to get it right, what I’m trying to do here is elicit a response–either a confirmation or a correction. So, “Actually no, this isn’t very exciting at all,” or “Actually, tell me about it, I’m so frustrated. You have no idea how scared I really am.” Or whatever it might be. Because then you can take that little piece of evidence in the next conversation with someone in a similar situation, you say, “You know, I’ve heard that this can be kind of scary. Is that how you’re feeling too?”

So I take that hypothesis and I take it out. So I’ve gotten one confirmation and I do this with two or three people as I evolve that emotional state for customer stakeholders in similar situations. “You know, I’ve talked to a lot of customer stakeholders and everyone I’ve talked to says this is really scary, is this kind of where you are too? Because I imagine this is pretty tough.”

“You know it’s funny, I was just talking to somebody the other day and they were super excited about this, are you excited too? Because I would imagine I’d be a little scared.”

And you can put different emotions on the table and essentially test them as you go. And what will happen is over time–that you will converge around one particular set of emotions that are most common, whether they’re negative or positive, to the point where you can say, “It’s really scary, isn’t it?” or “Yeah, I know, isn’t that exciting?”

And you can throw out these emotional states and make that emotional connection because you’ve tested them and you’ve got confirmation from enough people for you, with confidence, put an emotion out on the table and have your customer say, “Oh yeah, absolutely!” or “Wow!” and now you’ve created that connection not just at the rational level but you’ve connected at the emotional level because your customer is saying, “Wow, he gets me” or “she gets me because that’s exactly how I’m feeling.” And you know that that’s how they’re feeling because you just tested it with 10 other people just like them or at least similar to them.

And every once in a while, you’ll get it wrong. And that’s okay too because that’s what humanity is–is this richness, this tapestry of emotions where we don’t always get it right. But I think if you posit it with humility and you posit it with curiosity, and a genuine interest–this isn’t a rote exercise that you go through–you genuinely want to know how they’re feeling about it because it’s interesting. It’s the richness of humanity and they’re like, “Wow, something I find scary, someone else finds exciting.” and vice versa.

And that’s when you really, I think, become really a world-class, human-led seller is tapping into this emotional–making that emotional connection. But an emotional connection out of curiosity and out of testing that idea with others so that you can connect that back to this person as well.

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