Embrace the 'black hole'

It was supposed to be a peaceful lunch. A moment of respite in a cafe between meetings.

Only, the two guys at the table next to me weren’t making it easy. As I took a sip of my coffee, I could feel the momentum of their conversation building. One of them (let’s call him Willy*) had a brochure laid out on the table, and was enthusiastically pointing to different spots on it whilst talking at a breakneck speed. The other – let’s call him Biff – had his arms crossed and was frowning with a quizzical look.

Okay, so that dynamic alone is enough to bring out the people-watcher in me. A bit like observing a car crash in slow motion.

Things intensified as Willy’s speaking became louder and faster - was he trying to compensate for Biff’s lack of enthusiasm? Biff started to voice something – a concern perhaps? – and just as he did so, Willy raised his hands, saying “sure, but let me explain why...”. (I’m trying hopelessly not to listen, but you get the drift.)  Then the killer moment: Biff looks at his watch. Willy leans in as if to dial up the intensity. Biff says in a much louder voice now, audible to all: “Listen, I’m going to have to go”. Willy cranks up his pace a little more. Biff pushes aside his half-empty coffee cup, seemingly agitated. As Willy continues to talk, Biff stands up and says loudly, “Sorry, I’m out” and walks off. Just. Like. That.

End scene.

My pulse is running fast, and it’s not the coffee. I don’t even know these people, and yet I feel awkward sitting alongside Willy. What’s he feeling right now? He gets on his phone and calls someone – a colleague perhaps? All I hear is him saying is, “The guy’s crazy, he wouldn’t listen.” He gets up to leave and I can finally enjoy my lunch...

Or write this blog.

Because it strikes me, how often do we get a bit like Willy? How often do we find ourselves talking louder and faster, getting emotional even, in the face of resistance? A bit like an English-speaking tourist trying desperately to be understood in a foreign country. 

When we're trying to get other people on board with our ideas or initiatives, it’s inevitable we’ll face some kind of hesitation or pushback. I call this the ‘black hole’ - and it’s filled with the fears, reservations and concerns that are playing out in the minds of your audience as they think about whatever proposal or suggestion you’ve put in front of them. You can feel the black hole sapping the energy from a conversation, sucking any chance of a ‘yes’ into the ether.

So what stance do you adopt in the face of the black hole?

My advice is: embrace the black hole. Welcome it into the conversation. Seek to understand it – not neutralise it. The key here is to acknowledge your audience’s concerns and fears and then make them the centre of the conversation, not to marginalise them with a “but”.

You might say something like: “I imagine there are all kinds of questions running through your mind about how this would work, and perhaps some concerns. I’d be really keen to hear what those are. I know if we don’t address those now, then it will be difficult for you to get on board with this project.”

Keep asking questions and listening until it seems they’ve run out of things to share. Sure, at first it can feel like you’ve just unleashed a runaway train, but these are all the things rattling around in their mind. 

By embracing the black hole, you allow them the chance to speak their mind – to air the thoughts that are making it hard for them to listen to you, let alone agree. More importantly, though, you demonstrate that you’re not trying to get them to say ‘yes’ to anything they don’t want to.

Because no one like’s a pushy salesperson. And I think that’s where Willy might have gone wrong.

Until next time!


* “Willy” and “Biff”? What am I thinking?? Those readers familiar with Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman will feel as though we’ve been sharing a little joke... until I went and spoiled it with this footnote.

** This post contains a few sneaky snippets from my book, Work with Me: How to get people to buy into your ideas. Did you spot them??