Making People Fit

I heard a fascinating interview this morning with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the best-selling books The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness.

His new book is called The Bed of Procrustes. And in that metaphor, as you might have guessed, lies a tale.

Procrustes is a character from Greek mythology who owned an inn and would abduct people travelling past. He had a special bed he kept for these travellers to use… as long as they fitted exactly. Gruesomely, he would force them to fit the bed by stretching the short ones and chopping off the legs of the taller ones.

Taleb’s beef is with economists and consultants. He says that like Procrustes, they are changing the wrong variable.

They try to fit human beings and human experience into artificial models and systems, instead of making the bed fit the man or living with the difference. Instead of being useful simplifications, their models end up forcing distortions of reality.

How does this connect to X-Ray Listening, Intelligent Influence or Clean Language, I hear you ask?

Well, apart from being a very illuminating metaphor (and I love metaphors!), it draws attention to the need to acknowledge the differences between people. And the Clean Language questions are a great way of exploring these differences and discovering what people really mean by what they say, as independently as possible of any presupposed model.

Questions such as “What kind of X?” (where X is one or more of the person’s words) were devised by David Grove to contain as few presuppositions, and presupposed metaphors, as possible – and so to give the person to express themselves as freely as possible.

Of course, we can’t avoid influencing the people we are interacting with. I’m influencing you right now, and you are influencing me.

But we can acknowledge that people are different to ourselves, have different experiences, different knowledge, and a different take on the world. We can truly honour diversity.

And when it comes to contexts where deliberate influence is the order of the day, such as sales, we can acknowledge that the purchase motivating factors will be different in different people (and different groups of people), and that no product or service will be ideal for everybody.

No bed will fit everyone perfectly. The key is in finding the customers who fit the bed you have to sell – without having to chop their legs off.

And for that, the Clean Language questions (and X-Ray Listening) can come in very handy.

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