Passion and Predjudice: Connecting With Anyone

This summer I spent a month traveling through four different countries in both the Middle East and Europe, mostly doing client work but also taking some vacation time with my family. I learned a lot on this trip, and what I heard and saw reinforced some important lessons about building long-term client relationships. Read these vignettes and you’ll see why:

  1. Passion and conviction in Jerusalem

    I had the fortune (some would say foolhardiness) to spend a day in Jerusalem, accompanied by a knowledgeable guide. I lived in Rome for four years—an extraordinary city with many layers of history—but I was even more stunned by the powerful juxtaposition of history and religion that exists in Jerusalem. At the Wailing Wall, which is one of the original walls of the Temple of the Mount, I stood among orthodox Jews of many sects who shouted, sang, and whispered prayers with an intensity and passion that stopped me in my tracks. Above that very wall, at the same time, the Muslim faithful poured into the mosque there by the hundreds to conduct their evening prayers. From there I walked barely a half-mile to the Christian quarter of the city, to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I watched as devout, animated Christian pilgrims knelt at the very spot where Christ was crucified on the rock, and as they waited in a huge line to see the small cave where Christ’s body was placed after the crucifixion. Some nearly prostrated themselves on the rock slab where, according to legend, Christ’s body was washed prior to burial. I was moved beyond words by this outpouring of passion and conviction—passion and conviction backed, in each part of the city, by rather different belief systems, but sharing a common form of expression. It reminded me of the powerful effect that an individual’s passion and belief—properly channeled—can have on our minds and our hearts.

  2. Stereotyping in Paris

    [First, a disclaimer: I love Paris and have always been treated well in that city. The incidents I’m about to describe could have happened ANYWHERE, including New York, Tokyo, or London]

    My wife, Mary Jane, and I were sitting in a brasserie in the medieval quarter of Paris (called Le Marais) sipping a mid-morning “grand crème” (café au lait to most of us, but not to Parisians!). Through the door walked a young, rather handsome man who was quite dark-skinned, possibly from India or Pakistan. I turned to my wife, and commented (I am not making this up post-facto—the thought jumped into my brain), “You know, we probably have no idea how well-accepted we are as two tall, white, Anglo-Saxon Americans—not withstanding European ire over the Iraq war—and how much bias there is against someone like that man who doesn’t look like everyone else in this bar.” Almost as if on cue, the bartender and a waitress begin to stare disapprovingly at the young man who had just entered. Their looks hid nothing—“Why are you here?” they broadcast silently. The man asked them, in broken English, for a list of sandwiches. Something got lost in the translation, and after some delay, the bartender finally showed him the sandwich menu. The young man had not looked at the list for more than one second when the waitress exploded, exclaiming exasperatedly in French to the bartender, “Why can’t he make up his mind. Why is he taking so long?”

    The next night, we were sitting in a crepe restaurant in the Latin Quarter. The young, well-dressed and attractive couple sitting at the table next to us were speaking Hebrew, which caught my attention. They initiated a conversation with me (my entire family, including our three teenage children, was with me, a disarming presence which often stimulates people to spontaneously start talking with us!), and it turned out they were both Israelis who were living and working in Paris. Shortly afterwards they walked out of the restaurant. As they left, the waiters began discussing them in rapid-fire French, probably unaware of how well my wife speaks French.

    “Did you see that pretty girl with that Arab?” asked waiter.

    “Yes, disgusting—such a nice looking girl with a dirty Arab! I can’t believe it.” Replied another.

    My wife and I were floored by the irony of the situation. “So should we tell them he wasn’t an Arab but rather an Israeli Jew?” I asked Mary Jane.

    “I wouldn’t,” she replied. “Who knows, they’d probably be even more hateful if they discovered he was Jewish.”

You can draw your own conclusions from these unedited stories, but for me it’s clear. First, passion and conviction, if directed in a healthy manner, have a powerful impact on us. Clients, not surprisingly, are moved and motivated by professionals who resonate with belief. In the realm of business we’re not talking about belief in religious tenets but rather in a set of principles and values that guide us day to day in our professional work. We’re talking about a passion for what we do that manifests itself in every client meeting, in every discussion. About an excitement for our subject matter that is contagious.

Second, stereotyping and prejudice are huge barriers to listening to others in general, and in the business world, to getting to know each of our clients as individuals. There are three preconditions to empathy, which is a foundational quality of great client advisors: listening skills; humility and a learning attitude; and self-knowledge. To empathize and listen deeply, in short, you have to understand your hot buttons and your prejudices. When we walk into a client meeting and the person on the other side of the table is a man, a woman, short, tall, of color, a WASP—whatever—we all have unconscious filters and biases that slip into gear and interfere with mutual understanding.

Remember, clients value passion, boldness, and conviction in their advisors. But these have to be tempered with a willingness to listen and accompanied by a healthy serving of humility and self-knowledge.


Back to top