Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional

Last night began a 17-day odyssey, with travels taking me to speaking events in Seattle, New Jersey, Mauritius (look on your globe a few inches to the right of Madagascar), San Francisco (two events), and then up to Wisconsin with my band to play three times over a weekend. I’m expecting 64 hours in the air over the next two and half weeks, in addition to about 16 hours in airports and 12 hours getting to and from airports. I’ll make it home for a few odd nights along the way, staying just long enough for my geriatric dog, Puck, to get confused.

I’m excited about the work on these trips, but a bit concerned about dealing with all of the travel.  While on the flight this last evening, I was thinking that the best way to deal with mega-travel like this is to treat it like yoga. Relax, be present, don’t be anxious about things happening in other places. Focus on the moment I’m in right now. Avoid thinking, “When are we gonna get there?” and don’t let any travel hassles shake my peace of mind.  The four-hour flight from Chicago to Seattle was enjoyable; I settled into my seat, got some work done, read a bit, chilled out.

Well, this peaceful mentality was tested 10 minutes after arriving in baggage claim in Seattle, when it became clear that my suitcase (full of today’s presentation materials) didn’t make it on the flight. But just as my blood started to boil, I caught myself.  Yes, I think United Airlines is inept for making me wait in baggage claim, and then in a baggage service line, when they’ve known that my bag was lost for the last three hours. Why not send a message to me while I’m on the flight? Why not give me $100 to buy some stuff instead of saying “Government regulations give the airlines 24 hours to find a bag before requiring remuneration?” Why not apologize?

But I didn’t get upset.  I stayed calm.  Actually, I wasn’t calm for the first 30 seconds after the United agent confirmed that my bag was still in Chicago, but I caught myself.  I remembered that I have tons of travel in the next few weeks, and I don’t want to let these hassles interrupt my peace of mind.  This is not my normal reaction; I’m embarrassed to think about how many times I’ve lost my cool in airports.  But, hey, much of life is about practice and progress.

So why does this matter, beyond me keeping my personal stress levels down?

We Relationships are the great business differentiators in our new economy.  It’s very difficult to create lasting product advantages, and even more difficult to create lasting service advantages these days, because, if you are successful, your competitors are constantly trying to copy what you do and steal your customers.  But where your customers may see your products and services as replaceable with those from competitors, a personal We Relationship with you is unique, because it can’t be copied by the competition.

One of the biggest hurdles to creating relationship-building encounters is how the chaos in our lives makes it difficult to be fully present as we engage with our customers.  Here’s a common scenario:  In a workshop, I’ll ask attendees if they can tell when someone they’re speaking with on the phone is simultaneously checking email or surfing the web.  Invariably, people say they can discern this behavior, because it is obvious the other person is distracted.  Next, I ask them if they will commit that, for one week, they will not look at their computer screens during phone calls.  Just as invariably, people laugh and say, “No way, I know I can’t do it.  I’m so busy, I can’t resist looking at emails while I’m on the phone so I can get two things done at once.”

Now, take the same scenario, and add to it distractions from the BlackBerry, project deadlines, problems with other customers, personal issues, etc.  If we let these distractions get to us, we will not be able to engage our customers fully, and we will end up creating relationship-eroding transactions instead of relationship-building encounters.

Think about that.  As the distractions and stresses of modern business life increase, we are less able to have relationship-building encounters, at a time when relationships are the most valuable product we create.

As I wrote in this newsletter, We Are Not Multi-Taskers, “At any given moment, at places all over the planet, millions of interactions between buyers and sellers are devolving into mere transactions, missing the chance to be relationship-building encounters, because the people in the interaction are not fully present.” (For more on the idea of being present during customer interactions, see Chapter 2 in We or my free ebook, Encounters.)

So, if I let United Airlines’ ineptitude take over my brain, how will I be able to engage the audience to whom I will be speaking a few hours from now?  How will I be able to be fully present on the important call I need to have with a client before my speech?

As the Buddhists say, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”  You will be distracted. People, and your BlackBerry, will interrupt you. Thoughts about one customer will enter your mind as you speak with another.  People you work with will piss you off, and your blood will start to boil.  United will lose your bag, too.

But remember, relationship-building encounters are the most important thing you produce every day.  The more you can focus on the customer with whom you are speaking, right now, and ignore the distractions, the more successful you will be.


  • Smilin' Phil
    Jun 11, 2009 - 10:32 am

    Sometimes I think you are writing about me Steve. Actually ALL OF US can learn from the title of this blog!

  • Ed Markey
    Jun 11, 2009 - 10:54 am

  • Amanda Cullen
    Jun 11, 2009 - 11:31 am

    Good catharsis through blogging here (:

  • Dan Gunter
    Jun 11, 2009 - 12:30 pm

    Again I am reminded of the quote Stephen Covey shares often (and I do likewise):

    “Between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and happiness.” — original author uncertain.

    A little twist I like to put on an old adage is that I disagree with the saying “When life deals you lemons, make lemonade.” Why let ourselves get conditioned to limiting ourselves to just “lemonade” (i.e., only one possible response?) Such limitations are often what keep us from achieving greater things, such as fantastic customer encounters. Or that old definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing, expecting different results.”

    Maybe we should try going for a big old lemon meringue pie for a change?

  • The Conversationometer
    Jun 12, 2009 - 00:39 am

    […] to his BlackBerry as people stared when they crowded past him.  (Update for those of you who read yesterday’s post: After much hassle, I got my suitcase back from United Airlines. And, I stayed calm throughout it […]

  • Clemens Rettich
    Jun 15, 2009 - 23:57 pm


    I loved this article. Your call to stay present because it is the right thing to do for so many different reasons is so timely, and would be a great ‘lesson’ for a lot of Generation Y. They bring so many fantastic strengths to the game, but multi-tasking and lack of focus distracts a lot of their energy. Your reminder that being present, even in the face of distractions and demands, is a choice, really hit home as well.

    I am making this article my Blog of the Month in my newsletter for June.

    Thank you!

  • The Encounter Habit
    Jun 16, 2009 - 02:45 am

    […] I will fly to Mauritius later today, landing early tomorrow morning.  Continuing my theme from my “Pain is Inevitable, Suffering is Optional” post at the beginning of this 17-day odyssey, I successfully managed not to let United […]

  • Heathrow in the Morning - Thinking New Technologies
    Jun 21, 2009 - 23:08 pm

    […] the blog post I reference in the […]

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