Let Your Empathy Be Contagious
Denise Logan

I spend my days keeping people and deals from falling apart.

Right now, as I watch the coronavirus pandemic march across communities with all of its uncertainty, I’m struck by how similar this dynamic is to what I see playing out in deals every day.  It reminds me that one of the best tools to ease that panic is empathy.

Although I’ve coined my work as The Seller Whisperer because it’s been easy for many of the professionals on a deal team to name the Seller of a business as the problem child in the room, the truth is that I’m often whispering to everyone in the transaction.  My goal is always to help keep every member of the deal team emotionally grounded so that, in the face of inevitable uncertainty, they can make the best decisions with integrity, humanity and understanding.  It’s meant helping each person in the transaction understand their own needs, behaviors and emotions and to learn to exercise empathy in how they respond the others involved in the process.

Might you allow me to offer you a view into some of the patterns I see and the tools I’ve found helpful?  Perhaps you can use these in your own home and business to help ease the fear that is present in those you live and work with and serve right now.  And you might even see how to use these same tools to ease the natural anxiety that arises in your deals going forward both during and after this current crisis.

Uncertainty Creates Fear

Uncertainty taps into the most primal part of our brain, the amydgala – the fear sensor.  In my recent book, The Seller’s Journey, I have used a business fable – the story of a business owner and his advisors as they navigate the parallel obstacles of crossing a glacier and selling his business – as a metaphor to highlight the ways emotion-fueled obstacles can derail deals.  It’s designed to help advisors and business owners avoid the most significant cause of deal failure – Seller’s Remorse. 

Its lessons are likewise applicable to taming the current fear we are facing.

Each of the characters in the story (the business owner, his banker, his lawyer, his financial advisor and the buyer of the business) learns to recognize the unique ways they address uncertainty, as they move through the story, developing new effective ways to calm the anxiety in themselves and each other so they can safely make it to the other side.

I wrote the book because I watched too many deals fall apart because of unspoken fears and unaddressed emotions.  And, in the fraction of deals that did actually close, I was stunned to see how often the sellers, the buyers and the deal professionals emerged battered and traumatized by the process.  I knew that it didn’t have to be that way.  Just like I know that there’s more we can be doing to support each other to thrive during this pandemic.

Since each of us is wired differently to respond to primal fear and have developed unique ways to soothe ourselves in the face of it, recognizing when fear is present and understanding how we’re each responding in the face of it allows us to slow down our reactions and choose how we respond, rather than letting the amygdala hijack the thinking part of our brain.

Notice how the uncertainty around the coronavirus may be tripping your own fear and pay attention to the ways you have been trying to calm yourself.  Then ask whether you use any of those same coping mechanisms when you’re involved in a stressful transaction.  Understanding how YOU react to anxiety, stress and fear is the first part of the work I do with clients and you’ll watch the characters in my book learn it about themselves.

Not surprisingly, because we are social beings, our amygdala is finely tuned to pick up the fear that comes from others.  So notice how, when your anxiety spikes, your behavior can escalate the reactivity of those with whom you are in contact.  And, by contrast, how understanding your own fear-based responses but choosing to calm yourself first, can produce a different response in those around you.

I’m not suggesting that we pretend we’re not afraid.  In fact, research consistently shows that when we think something is being concealed from us, our fear (and the coping response that goes along with it) escalates.  That’s why I work hard to have parties in a transaction bring all the facts into the room, instead of concealing negative information from each other.  Most people will say they can deal with whatever happens, but they want to know what the facts are so they can make the best decision.  Isn’t that why you’ve been hitting refresh on your browser lately searching for answers about coronavirus? Sometimes, just acknowledging that something uncertain has happened and that it’s tripped your own fear can calm everyone in the room by acknowledging that it’s happened, even if you don’t yet know how to resolve it. 

Look around you during this time of uncertainty and see how the people you observe are reacting.

Some people are filled with panic that there seems no where to flee from this invisible threat and that their very lives (or livelihoods) are in danger.  Others are in denial that it’s a problem at all.  Some are frozen in place in front of their news feed searching for answers.  Some are defiant to any suggestion that they will need to change from “business as usual”.  The inexplicable stockpiling of toilet paper is actually a natural reaction from the many who feel that they just need to “DO something!”

Which one are you?

What CAN You Do?

All of these natural reactions arise in the face of a threat that leaves us feeling helpless.  I’ve seen it play out hundreds of times in deals when the advisor sends “one more email” to nudge a recalcitrant party to take action because the advisor’s own fear is spiking, not because the person receiving the email doesn’t already know what they need to do.  Or when an attorney insists on inserting a vast array of protections against all of the things that “might” go wrong, whether or not any of those disasters in his “parade of horribles” is likely to actually occur.  Or when one party makes repeated urgent calls which another party simply ignores and refuses to answer, as a way to send the unspoken message to stop over-reacting.  Can you notice the difference between when you are acting to soothe your own distress and when you are actually helping?

One of the reasons the coronavirus is distressing to so many of us right now is that there is so much unknown and this threat is unfamiliar. Can you see how that is the same way our clients feel when selling their business?  The process of selling their business is unfamiliar and much of what happens leaves them feeling vulnerable and exposed to unknowns.

One of the most important parts of navigating this coronavirus outbreak (like navigating the sale of a business) is having good advisors who are self-aware, transparent and who genuinely care about the person they are advising more than their own self-interest. 

The Seller’s Journey is designed to help you to be THAT kind of helper – as an advisor, read it and see how to recognize and slow your reactions and elevate empathy in your deals.  Then, send a copy to every owner you’re working with or every prospect you’re building a relationship with.  It will help to normalize the unspoken fears your owner is struggling with – the ones that keep them from engaging with you and from harvesting the wealth they’ve built in their life’s work. 

I know many of you are anxious that your deals may be in trouble, or that the prospects you’ve been courting all seem frozen or panicked or your pipeline is drying up.  Your face to face time has been sharply limited and you want to DO something. Instead of just pushing them to sell, send them a thoughtful personal note and include a tool like this book to build trust and rapport, to deepen your relationship with them, by showing that you understand what they might be struggling with as they contemplate or navigate the sale of their business.

Psychological Preparation is Important

Pandemics are scary. The spread of the coronavirus within the US and abroad presents a significant disruption to many people’s lives, a health crisis for some smaller number of people, and a deadly tragedy for a still-smaller number. 

For an owner preparing to sell his or her business, the process of the deal can feel like this kind of existential threat.  We even use language like “the deal is dead”.  To a business owner, the disruption a deal process brings to their regular routine and the intense uncertainty of what waits on the other side for them and their family kicks up this same kind of fear.

In the face of uncertainty around the spreading virus and the distancing measures that we are being asked to take, it helps to be a little psychologically prepared for the possibility that life will be very different for a period of time. Processing that possibility now can help us get over the surprise of that, to some extent, before it happens.

The same is true for our owners.  Helping to normalize the emotions they’re likely to feel, not just the logistics of the sale, helps to ease the surprise of it to some extent before it happens. 

We can help our owners by helping them to prepare psychologically.  But we can only do that if we also understand our own reactions as members of the deal team and how our emotional reactions contribute to the uncertainty and chaos in a deal.  Otherwise, we’re likely to shame our owners when their emotions flare or try to force our own agenda when we’re the ones who are anxious, causing lasting harm in the process.

What You Do During This Uncertainty Can Help Ease What Happens Later

A normal part of dealing with uncertainty is called an ‘adjustment reaction’ — that is, the stress, hypervigilance, obsessive reading about a crisis, imagining its effects on your family, and worrying.  It’s a step that is hard to skip on the way to the new normal. 

Many of us are experiencing this around the virus. Can you recall a time in a transaction when a buyer or seller was doing similar things?  Hassling you about when closing will happen?  Texting or calling you obsessively about a seemingly minor thing or something clearly out of their control.  Have there been times when you’ve suffered that same fear?  Obsessive worrying about whether a deal would close and the consequences to your own economic bottom line?

Going through it before a crisis is full-blown is more conducive to resilience, coping, and rational response than going through it mid-crisis. 

For many of us, professionally, we’ve been through the ups and downs that go along with a deal.  In fact, I’ve heard more than one professional tell me that every deal dies seven deaths before it closes.  Unfortunately, for our owners, they haven’t been through this process before.  To them, each time the process hits a point of uncertainty, their fears spike – and that’s normal.

The way we handle their fears and their emotional reactions can help spread empathy and care or it can fan the flames of panic, especially if we also push them, dismiss their understandable fears, avoid their calls or shame them.  Often I hear a banker, a broker or a lawyer or financial advisor tell me that a big part of their job is playing part-time psychologist/babysitter.  Sadly, too many of those same people haven’t taken the time to look at how their own emotional reactions are contributing to the chaos and uncertainty for their clients. 

So be forgiving of yourself if you’re having an “adjustment reaction” right now or if your friends and loved ones and clients are. The spread of the coronavirus will be genuinely disruptive, difficult, and for some people dangerous. Taking real steps to mitigate the effects it will have on you or your family isn’t a silly thing to do — it’s a responsible one.  You can practice this same approach with your clients, your prospects and your deal partners.  Help them make sense of what they’re experiencing and the natural fear it creates and how to prepare for when the deal market does allow them to consider selling their business.  This time and how we use it is valuable.

We can take the lessons we learn from dealing with this uncertainty and use it to bring awareness to our own reactions and empathy for the sometimes-less-than-helpful coping reactions we see our clients and deal partners using.  By bringing that self-awareness to our own needs, behavior and emotions and using it to build empathy for the others involved in the process, we can help even more owners make it all the way to the finish line, with integrity and humanity.  In the interim, you’ll be making things a little better for everyone.  We need you to.

After all, we’re all in this together.


You can purchase a single copy of The Seller’s Journey here or email me for discounted bulk order pricing.

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