To walk in the shoes of someone else, you first have to take off your own

Know your customer! Understand the user! Know your enemy!

walk a mile in their shoesWe’ve all heard these calls. To best be able to sell to customers what they really need and will appreciate, to design things that people will use, appreciate and rave about to their friends and acquaintances – or to best beat your enemies – you first should know and understand them. Of course. That’s pretty self evident. But, it sure is easier to say than to do, at least than to do well.

Hearing to respond or listening to understand?

It is so easy to end up just scratching the surface, creating an impression of understanding, but without depth and true insight. You “measure and label” all possible dimensions, increasingly focusing on individuals or personas instead of anonymous market segments. All good. But, too frequently, you’re preoccupied with your own next move. A bit like someone hearing, but not truly listening, since they think of what to respond instead. Hearing, but not active listening, and definitely not empathic listening.

Context, history, drivers!

Apart from this eagerness of using what you hear to meet your goal instead of truly listening to understand, there’s often another big mistake: looking at them, but in your context, the basis for understanding Their Why. What is their history, their experience? What is the culture and habits in their company, geography or religion? Or maybe their experience has left them sensitised to expressions that are perfectly innocent to you.

This is actually a case of where it can serve well for someone like me to be aware of my white privilege. Let’s use the image at the top of this blog post for example (not mine originally, but copyright-free). It’s quite a difference for white, middle aged, heterosexual family fathers to put on high heels for a charity race, compared to what it would be like for teenagers in homophobic Russia, or in any country with a strong machismo culture, or homophobic religious beliefs. Or, as I suddenly realised when talking with a colleague about standing up against xenophobia and religious prejudices; for me, he is a valued colleague, a peer, but for the xenophobes, he is just another muslim immigrant from North Africa. Even if we say exactly the same thing, the responses will be very different due to who they think we are.

So, next time you try to “know your customer/user/enemy”, dig a bit deeper. Try to understand where they come from, what is their context and what drives them. I’m sure you will have greater success (although it may take a bit longer to get there).

Do you have similar experience? Or you disagree? Please comment!