How is the Other End of the Phone?

I used to work with someone who sucked at phone conversations.


Sure, personal calls to her family were one thing. But she could get enraged on the line with customer service reps or government employees, and when she would cold call leads, the calls went nowhere.


One day she was on hold with a customer service rep, and I could see her seething. She started complaining to me about how irritating the call was and how she wasn’t getting what she wanted. So I asked her, “How is the other end of the phone? Did you ask how their day is going? Did you give them a chance to help you?” She gave me a completely blank look.

For busy entrepreneurs operating at a high level like us, you want to get down to business fast. When you’re making a call, you find yourself thinking as you’re dialing, “How can I get what I want as quickly as possible?” But when you get on the phone with someone, you really have no idea what you’re getting into. What was the other person doing before they started talking to you? Are they having a good day? A bad day? The answer to those questions has a huge impact on how they show up to your conversation.


The better question to start from is: “If I’m going to ask for something, what am I really asking the other person to give?” This gets you thinking about the other person’s motivations. What is their cost for saying yes to you? Are they at risk of being fired if they do? Will they be praised by their boss for saying yes?


Motivations differ. Everyone has their own agenda. That said, in most cases a safe bet is to follow the money. That won’t always look the same—the salesperson might be looking for a high ROI while the government employee just wants to save as much expense as possible—but in any kind of professional interaction, it’s the most common primary motivator.


The mistake most people make in their professional interactions is assuming the person on the other end of the phone is an antagonist, not an ally. Especially in customer service situations, the other person almost always wants to help you. A win for them is for your problem to be solved, so you can go away, and they can get back to the other parts of their job (or the next customer complaint).


Show up with an attitude of helping the other person to help you. Yes, you want something, but ultimately you’re on the same side. Bullying is ineffective. And when you think about it, it’s often shockingly easy for this person to make things more difficult for you if they wanted to. Choosing rudeness is a good way to get your hotel reservation “lost,” your couch delivery delayed, or your life or business otherwise disrupted by a disgruntled rogue employee.


Ask yourself, “how can I make the other person’s life easier?” The more you can help them (or at least just be generally pleasant to deal with), the more willing they will be to help you. Learn how to express the difference between being annoyed at the situation and being annoyed at the other person. I like to ask, “Would it help if I yelled at you?” It’s a phrase that can lighten the tension, get the other person to laugh, and still express my frustration at the situation without actually being an ass.


Starting from a place of understanding is often paramount to reaching your own goals. Take 30 seconds at the beginning of a call to ask the other person how they’re doing. The cognitive load it takes from you is negligible, but it means the world to many people who often are treated as an impediment in a telic (outcome-focused) process. That sounds incredibly basic, but I find a lot of basic empathy gets lost between people communicating at a distance.


In short, take a step back from focusing on what you want and focus on being a human. You’ll find that treating professional relationships like relationships (not transactions) yields better results.



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