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August 15, 2016

Customer Service Skills: What Kind of Movie Are You Showing?

By Eric Larson

ClassroomMy oldest daughter has already read the newest Harry Potter installment. The Cursed Child is not really a novel like the other seven. Instead it’s a script for a stage play. Some readers are reportedly disappointed having expected a de facto Book 8 in the series. Oh, well. Stella sure liked it; she read it in two days.

This got me thinking again about how we’re perceived at work. I have been somewhat obsessed with this topic for the past eight months while our Foundation has been developing and testing the /developing-programs/certnext/prepareu">PrepareU curriculum, a career skills program for tech workers.

Being aware of how our words and actions might be perceived by others is a very powerful type of on-the-job awareness. It’s certainly a key ingredient in what has come to be known as EI, or Emotional Intelligence, a buzzword in business that is still pretty hot.

We can all point to people who just seem to know what to say or what to do to get the best response from co-workers, bosses or customers. It’s possible that things just come easy for them, but chances are they also go through a very thorough process of perception-checking before they say or do something. “Measure twice, cut once” is how these folks operate, always careful to think about how they will be viewed if they send that email or make that phone call.

These superstars of the workplace know something that many of us don’t. Let’s give one of these superstars the name Emily. What is Emily’s secret? Emily knows that everyone else views Emily as a movie.

What does that mean? It means that Emily can only reveal herself by what she says or does. Her thoughts and feelings are otherwise a complete mystery to us.

Emily knows:
  • No one can see her good intentions.
  • No one can see her feelings.
  • No one can hear her regrets.
  • No one can appreciate all of her personal challenges.
  • No one can observe the thought process she went through and all the things she considered (and rejected) saying or doing before she chose her course of action.
On the other hand, most of us (who aren’t superstars like Emily) think that other people should notice everything that is “just so obvious” to us. That’s because each of us observes our life not like a movie, but like a novel.

When you read a novel, you’re privy to a character's innermost thoughts and feelings as they go about the story. You are told about the romantic lead’s nervousness before he smiles and says hi to the girl. You are aware of the depression the female protagonist has been feeling since her mother died, and how that plays into her difficulties focusing at work.

That just doesn’t happen much in real life. For example, though you might develop a level of intimacy with a friend or loved one, it’s rare that we’d have any sort of minute-to-minute awareness with anyone in the workplace. (I’d venture that most couples don’t even achieve such closeness. Most people, it turns out, are pretty good actors.)

Like everyone else, you and I go about our daily lives with work and family interactions and activities. But running in parallel to the performance we put on for others is an inner life that others rarely glimpse.

You see conundrums played out all the time in movies—especially really bad ones. Often you’re left scratching your head wondering: Now why is the main character doing/saying that?

The difficulty of translating a novel character to a screen character is one of the main reasons people often say, “The book is so much better than the movie.” Novels provide a dimension of insight and drama that a movie just can’t.

Because we expect other people to have some insight into our inner lives, we tend to blame others in the following circumstances:
  • When they say something to us that was “obviously insensitive.”
  • When they don’t meet our expectations.
  • When they don’t react “in the right way” to our email.
  • When they don’t give us our “deserved” credit.
  • When they underestimate our loyalty to the company.
Think a minute: Did they see or hear the thing you expect them to know? If not, then, for all they know, it doesn’t exist.

It really is all in your head—until you express it.

Like the scriptwriting coach says, “If it’s not on the page, it won’t be on the stage.”

Give people a sense of who you are through your words and actions.

Don’t expect them to read your mind.

Perception-check before you speak or act.

Do those things and you won’t just be the star of your own novel—you’ll be a movie star at work.