Sensing the Needs of Others

Sharon was just finishing a project debriefing with one of her top staff.  The briefing went fine, but something was wrong.  Jeff just didn’t have the energy he was known for.  His presentation was fine, but it just wasn’t as enthusiastic as she normally experienced from Jeff.  When the briefing was over, and Sharon had all her questions answered, she looked at Jeff and said, “What’s wrong?”

At first Jeff denied that anything was wrong, but Sharon kept probing.  Jeff finally decided to tell her:  “Our child who was just born 3 months ago is having XP (Xeroderma Pigmentosum).  That’s a rare genetic disorder which causes DNA damage caused by UV light.  Our little girl can never play outside in daylight, and she’s very likely to die from cancer.  Her life expectancy is less than 30 years.”

Both Sharon and Jeff broke down.  After the emotional shock, Sharon worked with Jeff to set up accommodations for his work life.  As the years went on, Jeff became a mentor to many young persons who would become leaders in not only Jeff and Sharon’s organization, but others as well.  He became an inspiration to all those he worked with.  It was hard to imagine the impact that Sharon’s last question could have.

In the 1970’s, one of the most popular TV shows was a detective series called, Columbo.  The main character, Columbo, was famous for ending his questioning of suspects by saying:  “Just one more thing.”  Columbo was a shrewd observer of people; their facial expressions, their body language, the confidence in their voices, and the comfort level in handling questions.  Columbo practiced the art of reading others.

Sharon was able to read that something was wrong with Jeff.  Being able to read others starts with observation of how people communicate and interact with others. This observation ability is based upon a sincere interest in others as persons, not just transactional participants.

The ability to read others also has a burden of asking one more question.  You have to really want to know what’s wrong.  As with Sharon, just asking questions may not provide the answer, so there is a need to probe deeper.

Once the one more question is answered to your satisfaction, the next step is working with the person to resolve the issue.  While this can be difficult, this type of support is what forms lasting impact with an incredible multiplier effect.  Jeff was able to help others as Sharon had helped him.

One of the disadvantages of a virtual work environment is that the cues that lead to one last question are often unseen.  And even if the cues are seen, the follow up conversation about resolution of the issue may be difficult in a remote environment.

Sharon’s ability to ask the one last question was not in her job description.  Her work with Jeff was not a metric she was measured by.  But her ability to ask one last question was what Sharon recalled most fondly at the end of her career.  Why do you think there is such a disconnect between what counts and what matters?

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“Only when the sense of the pain of others begins does man begin.”  -Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Russian novelist, screenwriter, actor, and film director)

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