There are some decision-makers who take the red pill: they want to understand the nature of their reality, and they expect you help them recognize the truth. Others prefer the blue pill: they have no interest in pursuing the truth, preferring not to have to acknowledge or address objective reality. Here’s how to serve them both.
The more mature a decision-maker is, the more interested they are in knowing the truth. Likewise, the more successful they are, the more they want to understand why they have a problem and what they should be doing about it. They pursue the truth because it is the fastest way to correct their course and improve their results. These are red-pill leaders, those who are willing to deal with reality as it presents itself.
You can tell whether a person is dead-set on knowing the truth by how they act around people from their team. If your contact’s employees or colleagues are unafraid to say things that would make another leader unhappy, you can be certain they won’t flinch when you tell them that they are largely responsible for their poor results.
You don’t serve a red-pill leader by avoiding the truth. In fact, not getting to the heart of the matter quickly, without hesitation, will cause them to lose trust in you as their potential advisor or partner. They surround themselves with people who are not afraid to tell them the truth, precisely because they want to make sure that their minor challenges or issues are effectively resolved before they become major problems. They seek people who can help them see their own blind spots. You can serve a red-pill decision-maker by telling them what others would fear to tell them.
Conversely, you disappoint a red-pill leader when you avoid difficult conversations. One of the things that makes you a good partner is your ability to see something that your client can’t yet see or doesn’t quite understand.
Even when a client wants to get to the root cause of the problem, you can be diplomatic in how you share it, if you are afraid of candidly blurting out the fact that the emperor has no clothes. In that case, the emperor will appreciate your willingness to tell them they are exposed.
On the other end of the spectrum, you find decision-makers and decision-shapers who would prefer not to know the truth. In fact, some will deny the truth for as long as possible. They are no different from their red-pill counterparts when it comes to wanting better results, but they avoid having to look at the root cause of their challenges—especially when the problem is something of their own making. They prefer to place blame elsewhere.
You don’t serve a blue-pill client by avoiding a necessary conversation just to keep them comfortable. As my friend Howard Bloom says about science, “The truth at any price, even the price of your life.” Or, we might say, even at the price of your deal. You are an enabler when you allow your client to retain a view of reality that harms them, the very opposite of your charge if you hope to be a trusted advisor and strategic partner.
Meetings with a blue pill decision-maker or decision-shaper will feel a lot like Fight Club: the first rule is that you don’t talk about it. When people are afraid of a conversation, it’s often because there are negative consequences for speaking the truth, especially around something that is verboten.
You might have noticed that some contacts speak poorly about every company they have ever used, sharing all of the ways they failed them. It’s rare that every vendor in a space can fail the same client; it’s more likely true that the client isn’t willing to change their own behaviors to improve their results.
When your client isn’t willing to address the factors that cause their problems, you can’t help them improve their results. And if you do sell them something that you know won’t help, eventually, they’ll fire you and add you to the list of vendors they blame for their failures. But it’s not just your solution that failed: you will also have failed them by not helping them look at something they don’t want to see.
You may have to explain that the reason it always feels breezy is that they are walking around without any clothes. They may chafe and grumble when you mention the unmentionable, but you’ll be saving the rest of their team from having to live with a leader who can’t see his own problems.
Shedding the Blues
One way to make it easier for a blue-pill client to face the truth is to give them an opportunity to examine their problems without an audience. When the truth is difficult for the person who needs to hear it, you don’t want to force them to defend their prior decisions or explain some problems they have let fester.
By having a conversation about the truth in private instead, you allow the person you are trying to help to share their discovery with their team, making it easier for them to adopt the truth as their own—and without being embarrassed.
There are always two forces at work when delivering bad news, especially when that the truth indicts or implicates the person receiving it. One force is conflict aversion, the desire to avoid having the conversation in the first place. The other force is your drive to help your client improve their situation and their results, something that requires both candor and diplomacy.
A big part of being consultative is your willingness to address what your prospective client has wrong and help them address their real challenges, even the ones that go beyond what your solution might do for them.
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