Call a stranger part three: empathy = conversation

talking bubble that reads "new business, who dis?"

Have you ever had a completely disconnected conversation with someone? Perhaps you shared something the other person didn’t acknowledge; they continued talking about something totally unrelated. Or they stared at you blankly for a few seconds, then changed the subject. You left the conversation feeling uncomfortable and thinking you’d avoid speaking with that person again.

This is exactly what will happen when you call and speak to a stranger… if you don’t employ empathy.

Empathy is your ability to understand and share another person’s feelings. When your goal is to inspire conversation with someone you don’t know, you need to understand—and respect—what’s happening in their world when they answer your call.

How can you do that if you don’t know them? There are three aspects of communicating that almost everyone finds challenging today. Understanding and adapting your communication to acknowledge these challenges provides you with the necessary empathy to inspire conversation.  

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Challenge #1: we’re all overwhelmed

Simply put, everyone you’re trying to reach on the phone is overwhelmed. You already know this, but perhaps you haven’t considered why this has happened or how it’s impacting daily communication.

While the word “overwhelmed” is not new, (it dates back to the 14th century with a meaning of “to turn upside down,” and evolved over time to mean “submerge completely” by the 15th century), until about 2010 it was rarely used in conversation.

Yet today you can be out doing weekend errands, meet someone you haven’t seen for awhile and politely ask, “How are you?” only to hear they are completely overwhelmed, tremendously busy, suffering as if they had an illness, like a bad cold, that simply won’t go away.

One reason this is happening is we are all, increasingly, doing more things ourselves that other people used to do for us. And each of these things takes five, ten or 15 minutes out of our day.

Here are a few examples from my own life:

  1. When I travel I print my own ticket, print and place a tag on any luggage and put that luggage on the carousel that takes it to my flight. This is not a big deal but it does cut into the time I would have spent enjoying coffee at my boarding gate.
  2. When I photocopy for workshops and presentations, instead of giving the pages to someone who does the copying and gives it to me to pay the cashier, I am now directed to a humongous machine and requested to make the copies myself. And, no, I can no longer pay the cashier; I have to figure out how to get this machine to communicate with my credit card. Something that used to take five minutes, or at least allow me to shop for other items while the copies were being made, now requires a minimum of 15 minutes.
  3. When I pay bills some companies send me a notice with the bill, while others send me a notice with a link to the website where I need to put in the correct password and find the bill. Some take only a credit card, while others I can pay through my bank account. Many years ago, bill paying occured one evening a month for 30 minutes. Today I can easily spend an hour on this task several times each month.

You have lots of your own examples—and so do all the strangers you want to reach. Everyone is scrambling for more time each day and this makes all of us more difficult to reach and more distracted. But there’s more…

We can, very generally, examine “overwhelmed” from a demographic point of view. For example, if you are trying to reach and speak with someone under 35, you should consider that this age group is often struggling with debt, has recently started a marriage or partnership, maybe a business and also a family. It they have infants in their life and are working hard to establish their career, they are definitely overwhelmed.

If you are trying to reach and speak with someone between 35 and 55, they can also be struggling with debt, working long hours and possibly travelling extensively for work, and their family may now include children that need to go places like school performances, sporting events and practices, choir, dance, etc.

Members of this age range often rush home from work, grab some reasonably nutritious food for the children to eat in the car, stay with them at a gym or rink until early evening, get home, put the children to bed and then, finally, at about 8:30 or 9 pm, have a few moments to themselves. They are definitely overwhelmed.

And finally, if you are trying to reach and speak with someone over 55, well, there’s a lot going on for this age group.

Recently I had two close friends turn 90. When I went to buy them birthday cards I was surprised to see that two of the largest greeting card companies had invested time and money into cards saying “Happy 90th Birthday”. I was able to choose from ten cards and, if these friends had been celebrating 100, there were five choices.

This was a visual reminder that, yes, we are all living longer. And if someone is turning 90, how old is the family member that might be taking care of them? Whether that person is living with them, or handling their finances, or visiting them regularly, that family member is likely over 55.

Add to this the shift in age of young adults living with their parents. Here’s the most recent Canadian statistics: “Among those aged 20 to 24, the proportion co-residing with their parents rose from 58.3% in 2001 to 62.6% in 2016. Among those aged 30 to 34, it rose from 11.2% to 13.5%.” Many of these parents are aged 55 and older, hence the phrase, “sandwich generation”—they have children returning home and an older family member who requires more of their time and support.

And one more thing: this demographic also includes many people  who are suddenly realizing that their “retirement” is at risk, that it’s going to take longer to achieve, require more money than expected or, in some cases, is simply not possible. They are definitely overwhelmed.

Why is this important when it comes to talking to strangers on the phone? Well, for many, many people, time has become as important, if not more important, than money. When you call them, if they don’t hear and experience your respect for their time, they will not speak with you.

It is essential today that we all cultivate a genuine empathy for how each person is experiencing time, and understand that the majority of them consistently feel overwhelmed.

Challenge #2: we’re plagued by decision fatigue

Numerous sources and studies indicate that adults currently make an average of 35,000 decisions each day. What! How is that possible?

Well, think about the way you start your day. Here are a few of the decisions you make:

  1. Time to get up
  2. Snooze or no?
  3. Exercise?
  4. What’s for breakfast?
  5. When will you take a shower?
  6. Check social media? If so, how long will you scroll (each time you don’t stop, that’s a decision), where will you stop, will you “like”, will you “share”, will you “comment”. Whew!
  7. What will you wear?
  8. What time will you leave?
  9. How many emails will you read, forward, answer, delete?

That’s a lot of decisions. In fact it’s approximately 1,000 decisions and you haven’t even left the house yet.  Next, you might get in a car and the decisions you make will continue to add up quickly. Time and motion studies indicate that driving requires a decision every 20 seconds.

Why should you care? Because the strangers you want to reach are also making all these decisions and, as a consequence, experience several points in their day when they can’t make another decision. Hence, decision fatigue.

INSTEAD OF: “Can we book your appointment now?” (this often results in the answer “Let me get back to you,” which is frustrating for you and not valuable for the person you’ve reached.)

TRY: “Based on what you’ve shared with me, the best next step is for us to book a demo of the platform …”  or “Based on our discussion, the best next step is for us to get together and share more information.”

These statements aren’t pushy; they’re straightforward and help the other person make decisions instead of pushing them deeper into decision fatigue. If someone isn’t ready to meet with you, they’ll say so, but if they are…they’re going to book that appointment or demo.

Challenge #3: we’ve built a culture of defensiveness

In 1961 Bell began introducing Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) lines to North America. These WATS lines offered businesses a flat-rate, long-distance plan and, in that moment, the growth of the “telemarketing” industry began.

Why does this matter?  It’s important to acknowledge that for 57 years we’ve received unexpected calls from aggressive salespeople whose focus is only on the money, not on relationship, or on delivering value. As a consequence, it is cultural, not personal, that everyone feels defensive today when they receive an unexpected call from someone they don’t know.

Use yourself as an example. What do you do when your phone rings and it’s a number you don’t recognize? Do you answer? If not, and that person doesn’t leave you a message, what do you decide about that call? If you do answer, how do you sound—welcoming or suspicious?

When you call a stranger today, you must:

  1. Be prepared for them to be defensive
  2. Understand that their reaction is not personal, its cultural
  3. Know how to dissolve this defensiveness very, very quickly

Overcoming these challenges

Understanding these three challenges allows you to inspire conversation with a stranger. The next and final step is using language that respects their time, dissolves their defensiveness and helps them make decisions, which is exactly what you’ll learn in part four.

Categories:   Insights
Mary Jane Copps
By Mary Jane Copps
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