Business Relationships: Make or Break With Micro-Responses

Today I’m thinking about micro-responses and how they can make or break your business relationships (and therefore your career).

A Business Relationships Story:

The other day at a store, I said to the clerk, “Hey, I’m hoping you can help me with something.” Before responding to me, she closed her eyes, lowered her head, and let out a quick breath through her nose. Then she looked at me and said, “Sure. How can I help you?” I instantly wished I hadn’t gone into that store. Our business relationship was in bad shape.

Above, I wrote that she closed her eyes, lowered, her head and exhaled “before” she responded to me. That wasn’t really true. That body language was her first response. And it was a foundational moment for our relationship.

We humans are, “meaning making machines,” so of course I interpreted that micro-response in my mind. To me it meant, “I don’t want to help you. Don’t bother me.” That response and the meaning I took from it had a more profound effect on my experience than her spoken response, “Sure. How can I help you.” I believed her non-verbals more than I believed her words.

 

It’s never about the thing. It’s always about the relationship.

 

The store clerk was willing to help me. She did help me. And even so, she tore down the business relationship with her initial micro-response.

A Take Away:

Micro-responses can tear down the relationship, and they can also build it up. How often do you smile at the people you work with when you encounter them? How often do you approach their requests with an attitude of “yes”?

Micro-responses that tear down relationships:

  • Sighs
  • “Oh no”
  • Frowning
  • Head shaking
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Etc.

Micro-responses that build up relationships:

  • Smiles
  • Nodding
  • “Uh-huh”
  • Eye-contact
  • Slightly raised eyebrows
  • Etc.

These micro-responses are pre-conscious and reflect the thoughts you have about the situation (or person) presenting itself. You can’t necessarily control micro-responses in the moment because they come before you know it. You can, however, notice them as they come or afterward, and instruct yourself in how you want to respond for the future.

And if you’ve made a destructive micro-response, you can apologize for the impulsive reaction. An apology, when it’s called for, is a powerful relationship builder.

You can ask those around you to give you feedback specifically about your pre-conscious micro-responses and enlist them in your effort to improve your collaborative ability.

Something to Practice:

You can give yourself instruction and deliberately apply your awareness  in advance of the situations where micro-responses come up.  Some of those may include:

  • When someone makes a request of you
  • When someone comes unannounced to your work space
  • When you encounter someone when walking through the office
  • When someone gives you feedback — corrective or congratulatory
  • When someone asks you for a status report
  • When someone tells you about their personal life, or asks you about yours

Keep track. Prepare to build your business relationships. When you catch yourself tearing down the relationship, make a quick apology and move on.

The greatest benefit of this awareness and discipline… You can change your own attitude through this practice, and improve your own outlook, morale, and value in your organization.

Today I’m thinking about micro-responses and how they can make or break your business relationships (and therefore your career).

A Business Relationships Story:

The other day at a store, I said to the clerk, “Hey, I’m hoping you can help me with something.” Before responding to me, she closed her eyes, lowered her head, and let out a quick breath through her nose. Then she looked at me and said, “Sure. How can I help you?” I instantly wished I hadn’t gone into that store. Our business relationship was in bad shape.

Above, I wrote that she closed her eyes, lowered, her head and exhaled “before” she responded to me. That wasn’t really true. That body language was her first response. And it was a foundational moment for our relationship.

We humans are, “meaning making machines,” so of course I interpreted that micro-response in my mind. To me it meant, “I don’t want to help you. Don’t bother me.” That response and the meaning I took from it had a more profound effect on my experience than her spoken response, “Sure. How can I help you.” I believed her non-verbals more than I believed her words.

 

It’s never about the thing. It’s always about the relationship.

 

The store clerk was willing to help me. She did help me. And even so, she tore down the business relationship with her initial micro-response.

A Take Away:

Micro-responses can tear down the relationship, and they can also build it up. How often do you smile at the people you work with when you encounter them? How often do you approach their requests with an attitude of “yes”?

Micro-responses that tear down relationships:

  • Sighs
  • “Oh no”
  • Frowning
  • Head shaking
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Etc.

Micro-responses that build up relationships:

  • Smiles
  • Nodding
  • “Uh-huh”
  • Eye-contact
  • Slightly raised eyebrows
  • Etc.

These micro-responses are pre-conscious and reflect the thoughts you have about the situation (or person) presenting itself. You can’t necessarily control micro-responses in the moment because they come before you know it. You can, however, notice them as they come or afterward, and instruct yourself in how you want to respond for the future.

And if you’ve made a destructive micro-response, you can apologize for the impulsive reaction. An apology, when it’s called for, is a powerful relationship builder.

You can ask those around you to give you feedback specifically about your pre-conscious micro-responses and enlist them in your effort to improve your collaborative ability.

Something to Practice:

You can give yourself instruction and deliberately apply your awareness  in advance of the situations where micro-responses come up.  Some of those may include:

  • When someone makes a request of you
  • When someone comes unannounced to your work space
  • When you encounter someone when walking through the office
  • When someone gives you feedback — corrective or congratulatory
  • When someone asks you for a status report
  • When someone tells you about their personal life, or asks you about yours

Keep track. Prepare to build your business relationships. When you catch yourself tearing down the relationship, make a quick apology and move on.

The greatest benefit of this awareness and discipline… You can change your own attitude through this practice, and improve your own outlook, morale, and value in your organization.


Set Expectations Like an Improviser

Are you in sales? Do you have a boss or have people working for you? Got people working with you? Do you work with people? 

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, there are people who expect things from you.

The question is, are their expectations consistent with the reality you are prepared to deliver? Will you meet their expectations, or will you disappoint?

Half the answer lies in what you deliver. The other half lies in what they expect.

THE INCOMPLETE SET

Last month, I placed an order with a marketing company. They told me, “Your marketing product will go live in no more than 30 days. Maybe sooner.”

That’s expectation setting. They gave me an expectation about timeline.

They also told me that I’d have a “success manager” assigned to me and my marketing efforts, and that I’d hear from that manager to get my input along the way.

They gave me specific time when I should expect completion, but no specifics about when I’d hear from the “success manager.” Because they left a gap in setting expectations for me, I filled the gap with my own expectations about what the interim timeline would look like. Because I set my own expectations about their service, they set us both up for confusion, disappointment, and anxiety.

Indeed, two weeks later, when I hadn’t heard from anyone, I touched base with the sales rep who brought me on board to ask how things were progressing. “The holidays have created a backlog. I’m sure you’re still on target. You’ll hear from someone soon.”

Cool. Reassuring. A little bit.

When I called again a week after that, I heard, “There’s a bit of a backlog because of the holidays, but I’m sure your release will happen on time.”

Less reassuring. Kind of vague.

When I heard from his colleague that same day, “I received your search landing page today, and you’ll see it for review in about an hour,” that truly reassured me.

Why?

THE COMFORT OF SPECIFICITY

Was it the tangible progress that reassured me? Because someone had seen actual work done on my project…?

Well, that was part of it.

A bigger part of it, however, is that the info they gave me was specific. It was not a general assurance like, “I’m sure you’re still on target.” Or, “You’ll hear from someone soon.”

I heard instead, “I’m currently looking at this specific aspect of our deliverables to you.” She said, “You’ll see it in one hour.”

It was nice that I’d see it so quickly. But, “tomorrow morning by 10AM,” would have been almost as good. It’s the level of specificity that gave me something to hold on to. My worries are gone. And I know when I should start worrying. I can directly compare the reality on the ground with the expectation they set for me.

IMPROV’S LESSON FOR SETTING EXPECTATIONS

What I’d like to impart to you is a bit of wisdom I learned by training as an improviser…

The more specific you are with others in your life — those who work with you, live with you, depend on you, employ you, work for you, buy from you, sell to you… whatever — the more specific you are with others, the more comfortable they will be.

And guess what, the less likely they are to irritate you as well. I think I got under my vendor’s skin a bit, by writing a few times to ask about the status of my order.

What would have saved me the worry that my order would be late? What would have saved my vendor the irritation of my, “Are we there yet?”

One thing would have saved us both the stress — practicing the improviser’s tool, “Be Specific.” Had they been specific, not only about the deadline for the finished product, but about the timeline of every deliverable along the way, I’d have rested comfortably and left them to do their work.

BE SPECIFIC

So, dear reader, the next time you find yourself in a situation where someone else is looking to you for answers about what to expect:

  • When will you…?
  • What will X look like?
  • How will costs be calculated?
  • What do you like about…?
  • What are the metrics for success?
  • Where can I find X?
  • How can I attain X results?

Be as specific as you possibly can.

Expectations are like bowling. When you’ve got a seven-ten split, you can’t expect to knock down both pins by simply rolling the ball down the alley “that way.” You’ve got to hit the seven pin just so, in order to send it spinning into the ten. That’s a specific task.

So is communication. You’ll be rewarded for your specificity.


The Internet Don't Know Leadership

There’s a video on the internet that I repeatedly encounter. It’s accompanied by commentary that indicates a severe misunderstanding of what good leadership looks like. Well, trolls don’t know leadership. Do you?

High School Don’t Know Leadership

Every time I see the video and its attendant misunderstanding of leadership, I am reminded of Mrs. Kershman who taught me writing in my sophomore and senior years in high school. When I first walked into her classroom, she took one look at my binder with papers sticking out all over the place and the stack of books sliding out of my grasp. She said, “You’re discombobulated. Leave my room, and don’t come back until you’ve gotten yourself together.” At the time, that didn’t seem fair. So what if my papers were scattered? So what if I was trying to carry too many books in my arms? And what the hell did “discombobulated” mean?

Mrs. Kershman didn’t abide any non-sense. Not from me, and not from any of my classmates. She called me out on a lot of non-sense over the course of two years. She called me out when I was disorganized, called me out when I was distracted or distracting in class. And, she called me out when I hadn’t put my best effort into my work.

Leadership Doesn’t Always Make Friends

I don’t remember any peers who held a neutral view of Mrs. Kershman. I came to love her pretty quickly. Some of my peers shared my affection and gratitude. Some, however, never liked her. In fact, they had very unflattering things to say about her. But she recognized potential in me most of my other teachers had overlooked. I can’t overestimate how much that has meant.

She expected a lot. When I scored a four on the AP English Comp exam (a score I was proud of), she said, “Congratulations. You could have gotten a five.” She was right. I hadn’t really studied.

Why did some of us love her? We loved her because she was honest, and she was generous with her knowledge, her insight, and her high expectations for our performance. She was fair. She doled out kudos when she saw commendable work, and criticism when she saw flawed work. Mrs. Kershman made me into a good writer. We loved her because she loved us. She loved us enough to be matter of fact and unemotional about our work — good or bad.

Mr. Moser, my directing professor in college, same story. Same with Mr. Peirson who taught studio art. Many of my peers disparaged them as well. I liked them at once and remain grateful for their high expectations and unemotional feedback. When their praise did come, it meant a great deal.

Some Colleagues Don’t Know Leadership

Later, as a part of the workforce, I had a supervisor whom many of my coworkers regularly disparaged as well. They had unflattering things to say about her. At first, I didn’t see what they disliked in her. She evaluated me fairly. She criticized my weaknesses and praised my good work. I challenged my peers’ mistrust of her. It seemed many of them believed she was trying to aggrandize herself by critiquing their work. One peer said, “no one’s had those complaints about my work before. It’s B.S.” It became clear that what my colleagues disliked in our supervisor was that she demanded excellence, and didn’t pet us.

I received her criticism as she delivered it, without emotion. She came to trust me (as I did her) and often sought my counsel. As our relationship continued, she told me more than once that she viewed me as a mentor in leadership and management. She had less experience leading and managing people than I did. Even as she called me a mentor, she continued to critique my work.

This was not the behavior of a self-aggrandizing power monger — to refer to a direct report as a mentor. This was the behavior of someone who loves good work, someone who knows that wisdom can flow in both directions without the loss of authority, someone who values growth over role power. My peers it seems had never learned what strong leadership looks like. Indeed, there were not many strong leaders in that particular organization. She was a diamond in the rough. My peers suffered from career histories without really having any oversight. They’d never cultivated a hunger for honest criticism as I had.

I feel truly fortunate to have had many strong leaders in my life. I am fortunate to have been raised and taught to recognize them. That’s allowed me to continue learning from great leaders, and to grow through their input.

Internet Troll Don’t Know Leadership

And so, I’m back to that video I named at the top. It’s a clip from Britain’s Got Talent. At the very start of a young boy’s audition, Simon Cowell interrupts the song. He says to the boy (Shaheen Jafagholi), “You’ve got this really wrong,” and asks him if he’s got any other songs that he can sing. Much of the internet lambasts Simon for this. It says he has “embarrassed” or “humiliated” Shaheen. Because of this and other no-holds-barred critiques that Simon has leveled at people on tv, the internet calls him cruel, and harsh, and mean.

In the case of Shaheen and his interrupted audition, I find Simon both generous and compassionate. The audition was not going well. Simon had the compassion and generosity to stop it before he embarrassed himself, or worse, failed in his audition attempt. Simon didn’t just stop the audition. He helped Shaheen to change its direction by singing a song that better highlighted his talents. Without Simon’s intervention, Shaheen would have fallen short and failed to progress in the competition.

With the second song, Shaheen crushed it. Simon saved his audition. He got a standing ovation. He didn’t look humiliated to me. (The internet also says that Shaheen humiliated Simon. Balogna. The two of them collaborated to deliver a stellar performance that wouldn’t have happened without their combined talents. Simon saw the talent beneath the bad audition, and he wanted to see it in full bloom.)

Simon, contrary to popular opinion, is a remarkable leader who can teach the internet a thing or two.

Three Leadership Lessons from Simon

One lesson is in the Shaheen video above:

1. Look for greatness. Insist on greatness. Waste no time in playing around with mediocrity when greatness is within reach. Mrs. Kershman would approve.

Simon’s second lesson in leadership is also grossly misunderstood by the internet. He demonstrates this lesson when he interrupts another audition, saying, “I can’t listen to that,” and suggesting she choose another song, “a better song. What else have you got?”

Simon’s fellow judges do not approve of his having interrupted Jodi Bird. They tell him so. And then Jodi begins her song again. Same song she started with. She sings her heart out. The crowd goes wild, and her father shouts, “Take that, Simon!” Simon’s response, “Yeah. I may have acted a little bit prematurely there.” He adds briefly, “I’m not crazy about [show tunes],” and immediately proceeds to say, “I did cut you off too short. And I apologize.”

Second Leader’s Lesson:

2. Leaders make errors. They’re open to recognizing the fact. They acknowledge it easily and quickly. And if there’s any chance they’ve stepped on someone’s toes, they readily apologize.

Turns out, Simon interrupts people often. In this third video, he interrupts Hope Murphy as soon as he recognizes the song.

Simon’s brain was impaired when it came to this song. He’d heard it too often, from too many auditioners and he was sick of it. The internet doesn’t like that Simon’s rejected yet another person’s song choice. “He’s trying to throw her off,” says one commenter. In truth, he’s self-aware enough to recognize that he’s now got a bias against that song. He doesn’t know whether Hope has talent, but he does know that if she sings the song she’s chosen, he won’t give her a fair shake. Watching and evaluating auditions is exhausting. He’s already seen many, many people. And, he wants to be sure to give Hope her fair shake.

Third Leader’s Lesson:

3. Know thyself. Compensate for your weaknesses and blind-spots — whether permanent or temporary — by creating systems and fail-safes to catch you.

The internet is full of bad lessons in leadership. Some people think good leadership is either soft and fluffy or leaves you to your own devices. Nope.

Leadership isn’t soft. It’s loving. It reflects the truth back to you, instead of shielding you from reality and preventing your growth. Leadership expects more from you than you think you have to give. It looks beneath the surface to see potential and encourages that potential to be realized. Sometimes it’s tough. It doesn’t agree with your self-limiting ideas. If you’re available and open to it, you expand your capability and shine in its presence.

Recognize Leadership: Leadership Sees You

Take a moment to reflect. How are you doing with respect to these measures of leadership? Are you kindly demanding excellence? Or are you weakly permitting mediocrity? How are you responding to strong leadership? Are you gratefully asking more of yourself in response? Or are you disparaging of others who want to see you grow to meet your potential?

Thank a great leader in your life today. Share your experiences of great leaders with me. I love to hear those stories.