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MCLEOD: Are your metaphors ruining your relationships?

Lisa McLeod

Lisa McLeod

I admit it; I'm a language junkie. I believe that words matter.

I was recently in a business situation that revealed how much our word choice can affect our relationships.

A major manufacturing company was choosing a consultant to help it revamp its sales strategy and develop its sales leadership team.

My firm was up against another consultant. I knew that the senior leadership team preferred the other guy.

His website used the metaphor of a hunter. He promised that he would help the company "hunt down" big sales. He even used a target and a rifle in his promotional materials to cement the hunter metaphor.

When I went in to make my presentation, I decided to be up front and honest. I said to the team, "I know the other consultant has promised to help you hunt down big sales. He's going to teach you how to get customers in your sites, and go in for the kill."

"I, on the other hand, use the language of Noble Purpose. I'm not going to help you hunt your customers: I'm going to help you connect with them. Instead of thinking about your customers as targets, we're going to think about them as human beings."

I could tell that the leadership team was starting to feel a bit sorry for me. My competitor was the hunter; I was the wimpy one who talked about empathy and service.

Then I asked the question, "If your three biggest customers were sitting here in this room, who would they want you to choose?"

Would they want you to hire the consultant who refers to your customers as targets and wants to hunt them down for the kill? Or the consultant who tells you that your noble purpose is to improve your customers' businesses?

I got the project.

The words we use to describe our relationships affects the way we approach them.

Referring to salespeople as hunters and customers as targets is commonplace in business, yet the metaphor has negative implications. Hunting is it about tracking, killing, and then generally eating the target. That language creates an environment that says, we don't serve customers; they serve us.

It may sound appealing, but research (my own and scads of other business studies) have documented that organizations who think of their customers as targets are less successful than organizations whose stated purpose is to make a difference in their customers' lives. One 10-year study revealed that companies who strive to improve customers' lives beat out their competitors by almost 400 percent.

Metaphors matter. The same principles play out in our personal lives.

Imagine two parents: one describes their job this way, "I need to control my children to make sure they do what they're supposed to."

The other parent says, "I'm raising the future president."

Which parent is going to put more thought into their conversations with their child? Who is going to be better able to marshal their energy to read a story or pay attention at the end of a long day?

Your internal talk track affects your external behavior. If you refer to your customers as targets, your boss as a scrooge, and your family as shackles to your freedom, it's unlikely that you're going to be very successful with any of them.

Your metaphors create the narrative of your life. Choose imagery that will help you show up with passion for the people who matter to you.

Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of "Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud."