“Do I like you?” “Are you believable?”
During a conference call, this was posited as what really matters to prospects when those positioning themselves as advisors in any capacity try to get business. Believable. Believable is not the same as credentialed, learned, experienced. After all, good actors – and con artists – can be believable.
Years ago, as a director of communications at a private school, an admissions director told me that one of the goals of setting up parlor meetings at current students’ homes was for prospective students’ parents to feel an affinity, to help them see that their kids and they as families would fit in with the school’s culture. This does not necessarily correlate to quality of education, but it may mean we think about using someone else’s criteria (for judging how good the school is) in lieu of our own. That is, assuming the other person had solid criteria to judge by.
This semester, as part of the communications track in a dual degree master program, I am learning about theories of communication in a field where each advance in technology means that how and from whom people receive information is always changing, I am drawn to finding what is the same, what underlies it all. We’ve moved from a world where messengers rode far to proclaim announcements to a 24/7 news cycle on multiple platforms filled with filtered stories that are opinion-driven interpretations and with edited perspective-driven video and audio. How do we know what, if anything, we can take at face value? Given how much of communication is by necessity intertwined with psychology and sociology, what underlies it all is the most fragile / interesting / problematic / quirky / unstable / name-your-adjective of all: human nature.
People want things made simple, but this approach is never enough. As I discussed in one of my earliest blogs, “It ain’t so simple,” generalizations and simplifications carry danger; it requires making an effort to get past them.
People want someone to tell them what they need to know. Whether in business or science, politics or education, medicine or parenthood, we want to look towards and trust the kind of authoritative leadership that presents with conviction the “best” course of action or the “truth” as revealed by research. But as long as humans with biases, desires, agendas, something to prove are the ones doing the talking, we will need to question: On what was the decision based? How much information did the decision-maker take into consideration? Could there be personal, financial, political or other influences at play? Have we taken the time to better understand the topic, whether by diving in or researching recognized experts coming from multiple perspectives?
As a society, when it comes to business and in other areas, we seem to value those who have the self-confidence to arrive at decisions quickly and speak of them with resolve. But truthfully, I find this problematic. I want research. I want decision-makers to have more information in hand. I also want some consensus, both among knowledgeable experts because I value their informed opinions, and among those affected by decisions at various levels, because the perspectives from which they see the issues matter. I admit it and have admitted it before: there is much I do not know. Others do.
As I dig deeper into theory, I cannot help but think about the dichotomy we often face – people want to be the masters of their own decision-making but don’t want to do the work involved in learning about the myriad of factors that go into every issue. And as I’ve also learned in the public administration track of my program, this is especially so when it comes to the big issues that affect us all.
Human nature gets in our way.
“Do I like you?” “Are you believable?”
Marketers, advertisers, communicators, political consultants, social scientists, psychologists, designers of artificial intelligence understand it is human nature for people to want what they want and to not want what they don’t want.
Your homework assignment: Next time you find yourself listening to a decision announced with authority, think about how much you like or dislike the person issuing it and how much you actually know (or trust he or she knows) about the subject matter. Can you separate the person from what is being said? Ask yourself: “What’s like got to do with it?”