Saturday, August 19, 2006

Latest life secret: Making a practice of non-attribution

Those pesky non-replies

Changing your career (and life) involves seeking out the advice and assistance of a lot of people. You have to do a lot of initiating and it’s not always clear what is happening on the other side. This can lead to frustration. One of sentences spoken most frequently in my charming office in the Flatiron district is:

“Well, I sent an email to that person, and he didn’t answer.”

This is usually followed by a kind of sigh that contains exasperation flavored with a whiff of failure and a heavy undertone of disapproval.

There are many alternate versions of this sentence: someone didn’t follow up; someone didn’t return a call; it was a great interview but nothing’s happened yet. Blah, blah, blah.

What's really going on

From my heady perch as New York’s life coach to the stars, what I know is that these folks are getting all wrapped up in their own internal perceptions of what’s going on, which often has little to do with reality.

There is an inherent asymmetry to looking for a job, starting a business, or getting people enrolled in your new idea. Other people are busy, they are attending to their preexisting list of things to do, and, shocking as it seems, they all have their own issues. All this means that time passes more quickly for the asker than the asked, and your greatest priorities are not necessarily theirs

I tell my clients that a lack of response isn’t the same as a “no,” and that they should assume a 5:1 ratio of output to response. In other words, until you’ve made five attempts to contact someone, don’t start assuming they don’t want to deal with you. It’s awkward, I know, but whatever, it’s life.

The power of non-attribution

A sales expert with very high emotional intelligence recently put it this way: “I try to make a practice of non-attribution.” This statement was in response to one of my colleagues who wondered what the heck was going on when a great initial meeting didn’t seem to lead to anything. “Maybe they were busy,” he said. “Maybe they have other things going on. I don’t know and you probably don’t know. Most of the time, I can’t know. So I try not to make attributions. It’s easier that way.”

I really dig this phrasing—“making a practice of non-attribution.” When you start attributing motives to people, you weigh yourself down. You complicate your thoughts and your interactions. You make yourself responsible for a whole other story line. You spend a lot of time strategizing rather than just, you know, doing stuff.

In contrast, when you avoid attributing motives, you lighten your own load. You take your own ego out of the equation. You increase your energies. So try it—the next time someone else makes you feel irritated, jerked around, ignored (and of course, they’re not making you this way, you’re making yourself that way) … see what it feels like not to attribute a motive to them. It works.