I. The Exec

It's Summer 2005. I'm a young exec at a well-known global consulting firm. Between client obligations, I'd spent a few late nights putting together a short comedy video welcoming our group's new hires. True to the spirit of the aughts, it was done in the satirical style of Conan O'Brien's Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, and to be shown at our department's "Community Meeting" on Friday afternoon.

Until it wasn't.

"Uh, yeah. We're going to go ahead and scrap the video." My boss Joe said, looking uncharacteristically fraught. 

"Aw jeez. How come man?" I asked.

"New global big boss dropping in for our meeting today. He doesn't do... humor."

Bummed, I held a double-secret-probation showing of the video in my office for a few close colleagues. After much laughter and camaraderie, my teammate Matt asks me with a straight face if I'd be up for the job of videographer at his wedding. This, solely on the strength of my puppet-dog-telling-poop-jokes handiwork. What could go wrong?

II. The Hired Help

We negotiated a friends & family rate: 50% cheaper than a qualified A/V professional, but still infinitely more lucrative than whatever else I had going on that Saturday. Suited up, I arrived at the venue a touch early to set up my camera.

"You can't put your tripod there, bub." says the facilities guy. 

"I, um. Sorry." (Who's this guy think he's talking to?)

"There will be NO flashes or lights of any kind allowed here. I hope I'm making myself clear." says another woman at the chapel. (What's her deal?)

Later, at the reception, I'm grabbed by my arm by a tipsy middle-aged woman with a disposable camera, who barks: "Move your big head! You're blocking my shot, video boy!" (Wow.)

III. The Bro

Now it's ten years later. I'm driving my mom and two young kids to lunch on a beautiful spring Saturday in downtown Naperville, Illinois. 75 and sunny. People are out in droves, enjoying the kind of day San Diego takes for granted, and Chicago gets precisely 3 of per year. So many, in fact, that the town's intersections are an uneasy flood of pasty pedestrians and literal Sunday drivers.

I'm trying to make a left-hand turn. Hoping to find a crack in the crowd. I nudge carefully forward, making eye contact with an early-20-something woman whose eyes turn into daggers.

"Just because you have a sweet car doesn't mean you have to drive like a @$#&#*&!"

I was shell-shocked. Mortified. I mean, my mom was right next to me!

"Try not to suck, ok Tesla bro?!" the girl hissed, striding off.

"I don't think I've ever been called an @$#&#*&" I sheepishly confessed, red-faced.

"At least she complimented your car." my mom offered constructively.

Your Context Precedes Your Contents

As far as I'm concerned, I'm just me. The same guy I've always been. If I came with a label, I'd like to think that it'd read: "Contents: Slightly high-strung family man with a motormouth and a proclivity for unexpected analytics and analogies. Fast CPU; Big hard drive; Severely limited RAM." I'd like to think that the people who know me best would agree.

The people at that wedding, on the other hand, didn't know me as Matt's executive peer who offered to help out at the wedding on a friendly dare of sorts. In that context, I was simply "the hired help".

The young lady at the intersection didn't know "me" either. In that context, I was simply "a bro": All that was wrong with capitalism, patriarchy, and 2018 America.

At work, many of the people we do business with in any given day don't know us all that well either. Until someone really gets to know your "contents", they're assessing you almost entirely on context. That is, on titles, appearance, preconceptions, assumptions, and hearsay they ascribe to you in the absence of any actual, you know, first-hand-experience of you

Common Ground

If people are going to dump a bucket full of errant assumptions on you, you can stay a bit drier by asking yourself: "What does this person, or group of people, likely presume about me, given our relationship and roles?" I've found this mental exercise has been critical in developing my communication, interaction, and selling skills.

Here's how to do it in 3 simple steps: 

  1. List out 2 or 3 assumptions you have about your counter-party. 
  2. Now, list out a set of assumptions they, in turn, probably have about you.
  3. Determine which of those, if any, need to be unwound, and invest time at the outset of your meeting diffusing each other's errant assumptions and establishing common ground.

For example: If I'm hearing a startup pitch in my role as an investor, I figure the entrepreneur is probably thinking I'm, relative to her, a numbers person by nature. A critic. A "shark". As such, I typically open my meetings with entrepreneurs by telling them that I'm wired up more like an inventor than an investor, and cut my teeth building newfangled products like her own. Nearly every time, the air clears, the tension melts, and we graduate to "2 people co-creating possibilities" as opposed to the accuser/accused dynamic.

Whether folks are under, or overestimating you, they're always estimating you.
It's simply what we humans do until we have better information. Here's to acknowledging that fact, getting beyond it, and getting on to building real relationships. 

Published on: Feb 16, 2018