It’s become common in business literature to say that entrepreneurs who care about others tend to be more successful. Thus, say business authors, it will profit you to act like a caring person. Say “thank you,” smile, look into people’s left eye, let them do most of the talking, and so on.
I think it’s true that people who are genuinely concerned for others’ wellbeing make better entrepreneurs. But that doesn’t mean we can develop real concern for others simply by imitating caring people — by aping their body language and the words they use.
We can easily see this, I think, when we recall moments when someone flashed a fake smile at us. The corners of their mouth turned up, but their eyes were hard, and fearful or angry. All this did was create unease for us — it certainly didn’t make us want to do business with them.
I’ll bet you can also remember a time when you went into a social event with preconceived notions about how you “should” act — perhaps you thought you needed to look charming, aloof, successful, or something else. Was that enjoyable or miserable? I think the answer is clear — making all that effort to look a certain way is no fun at all.
Ask Yourself Why You Don’t Care
If caring for others isn’t about imitating kind people, how do we do it? In my experience, the first step is to take a close look at what’s going on in moments when we don’t find ourselves caring about people — when our hearts are closed.
My sense is that, when we aren’t feeling concerned for others’ wellbeing, it’s because we’re occupied with protecting ourselves. Consciously or not, we think there’s a threat to our survival. Naturally, we’re focused on avoiding that threat, and others become just a means to that end. We start ignoring people who don’t look like they can give us money or prestige, and manipulating those who do.
So, I think it’s useful to ask ourselves, whenever our hearts are closed, “what’s the threat I’m trying to deal with right now? What danger am I protecting myself from?” The answer you arrive at, if you sincerely ask this question, might be something like this:
“I need to look tough to make sure people don’t hurt me.”
“I must look successful, or no one will work with me.”
“I must be seen talking to the right people, or my social status will be destroyed.”
“I need to get clients at this event or my business is shot.”
Facing The Danger
It makes perfect sense that, when we’re thinking this way, caring about others is impossible. But I think you’ll notice that the question I described helps put the perceived threat into perspective. The closer you look at the supposed danger, the less serious it starts to seem.
Is it really true, for instance, that your business will collapse if you don’t get clients at this event? And even if your business did collapse, what would that really mean for you? Would you disintegrate and never be seen again? Or is it more likely that you’d get up and try something else? Notice how just probing the fear a bit with questions like these can have it start melting away.
My sense is that human beings are naturally compassionate toward one another. Tapping into that compassion, I think, is more a matter of letting go of the ways we protect ourselves against getting hurt than memorizing the right “tips and tricks.”
(You can read Part One of this series here.)