guest post: ‘just listening’ by howie jacobson

by Howie Jacobson

In my last article, I talked about projection: what it is, why it keeps us from seeing the world as it really is, and how marketing offers us an opportunity to recognize and free ourselves from the grip of projection.

Now I want to talk about why it’s so important to liberate ourselves from projection. Not from a spiritual perspective, but from a marketing perspective.

The Ultimate Marketing Superpower: Empathy

Can we agree that empathy is one of the key skills necessary for successful marketing? If you can really understand what another person is thinking and feeling, then you can craft products and services and offers that appeal to that person’s sensibilities. And you can talk about those products and services in a relevant, respectful and attractive way.

Think of Nick Marshall, Mel Gibson’s character in the movie What Women Want. When his accidental electrocution gives him the gift to hear women’s thoughts, he immediately becomes the star advertising executive at his agency, celebrated for his ability to market effectively to women.

If you were suddenly given that ability, to hear the innermost thoughts of your prospects – their selfish desires, their secret fears, their poignant stories – can you see how that knowledge would instantly solve 99% of your marketing problems?

Getting the Data is Easy

On the web, all the data we require is at our fingertips. We can reverse engineer Google’s organic listings to find out what the world’s smartest computer thinks people want.

We can eavesdrop on forums, on Facebook, on amazon reviews, on blog comments, and dozens of other places to hear the uncensored, passionate voices of our prospects. We can conduct inexpensive yet highly valuable surveys of our own to discover the deepest desires and hesitations of those who might buy from us.

So what’s the problem? I’m telling you to read the mind of your market, and I’m telling you exactly where to go to get the information. Why isn’t that the end of the story?

The Filter that Keeps Us Clueless

Have you ever listened to a radio or watched a television that got lousy reception? Lots of noise, static, snow, wavy lines, and fuzziness. Do you think the program sounded or looked that way coming out of the studio?

Of course not. The program signal was not the problem. The problem was the poor quality of the device; its inability to translate the incoming signal into clear and meaningful output.

Each of us operates from a filter that keeps us from true empathy. It’s called projection, and here’s how it works:

When I hear you talk about something, I search for meaning in my own past experience. If you say “toothache,” for example, I go back into the file called “Howie’s toothaches” to try to understand what you’re talking about.

When you say the assistant manager at the store was rude, I likewise superimpose my own vision of “rude” on your story. Until you elaborate, I might picture a young guy with dreadlocks and tattoos and piercings giving you the finger. Or I might imagine a snooty middle aged woman raising her eyebrows in disapproval of your request for a refund.

The word “rude” has meaning only in terms of my experience, either direct or second-hand (movies, books, friends’ stories, etc.).

Until I listen to you tell the straight-up facts of what happened from your perspective, I fill in the blanks based on my preconceptions. That’s projection.

Projection occurs much more subtly and pervasively. If I think you’re angry, or sad, or frustrated – chances are I’m interpreting a set of signals through my own distorting filter. “If I were acting that way, it would be because I was irritated,” I reason. So in my mind, you’re irritated. And with that interpretation now projected onto you, I look for confirmation and ignore all contradictory signals.

Projection vs. Empathy

As long as my mind engages in projection (which is only about 100% of the time), I can’t be truly empathetic to you. I can only be empathetic to me. So to the same extent that you and I are having different experiences or different interpretations of those experiences, I’m missing what’s meaningful for you.

In other words, while I think I’m looking at you, I’m actually just seeing myself in a mirror projected on your face.

The Sioux medicine man Fool’s Crow believed that he could be a conduit for healing only when he made himself into a “hollow bone,” a vessel for divine spirit that didn’t superimpose its own particular stories and struggles onto the person seeking healing.
When I read Tarot for clients or engage in Shamanic healing, I have to be exquisitely sensitive to the presence of my own stuff, so that I don’t end up giving someone else the medicine meant for me. When I throw the 4 of wands, for example, do I tell them to chuck the corporate gig for a walk on the wild side because that’s what the card means in this particular reading, or because my own life story concatenates with that interpretation?

Am I Marketing to Me?

If I don’t get familiar with my projections, my marketing turns into a narcissistic festival of self-love and self-loathing. The self-love part is easy to see: I think about what I would want someone to say to me, and then I say it to myself and pretend I’m saying it to you.

But self-loathing? Absolutely!

You know all those “marketing tricks” that seem to work but you really have no stomach for? Like false urgency and false scarcity? “Tomorrow only.” “19 17 12 6 spots left!”

Or manipulative pseudo-reciprocity? “Here’s a free gift. Isn’t it great. Now you owe me.”

Or appeals to the lowest self? “If you buy this your neighbors will bang their heads against the wall in jealousy. Beautiful women will leave their husbands for you. All those jerks in high school will be sorry they didn’t give you more respect.”

We fall back on these and dozens of other gambits because part of us has no respect for our own integrity. We despise and are deeply ashamed of that part, but when we project it outward, it feels better. “What a bunch of sheep they are! What a bunch of insecure losers!”

So we end up attracting the customers and clients who share our most awful traits, and then wonder why we complain about them.

And those judgments diminish our prospects in our eyes. To the extent that we cannot love them. And if you cannot love the people whose lives you are supposedly improving with your products and services, why on earth would they choose you? Because you need the money?

Getting Past Projection

If you’re a lot more spiritually advanced than me, you might have figured out a way to stop projecting. I haven’t. I project like an IMAX theater; consistently, relentlessly, and with alarming realism.

What I am getting better at is recognizing my own projections. The ones that come up every time. The ones that I now recognize as my own face, rather than the face of my prospect, my beloved.

I find that getting quiet on a regular basis helps tremendously. The art of empathy is essentially the art of listening with the head and the heart. When I sit quietly and stop trying to impose my interpretation on reality, I start to listen better. The static mutes and the authentic signal comes through.

And listening as a marketer only happens when I let go of effort, of will, of the need to sell something or convince somebody.

Marketing Minus Projection

When I come to listen with the agenda of manipulating your will, that’s not true listening. And you can sense that. And distrust it. And run from it, if you can.

But when I come with no agenda other than a thirst for truth, for your truth, then your words and thoughts and feelings come through undistorted. I can respond to you naturally in a way that you trust. The word respond comes from the French, meaning “to promise back.”

Whether we speak face to face, over the phone, via email, or whether you’re just one person in my “target market,” I can hear you only when I rest in my own integrity, when I promise back to you to dive into your fears, your pains, your desires, your stories only to serve your highest good. Not to plunder your secrets for my advantage.

In What Women Want, Nick initially uses his gift of mind-reading to climb the corporate ladder and seduce women. But almost despite himself, he begins to form friendships with his co-workers and develop respect for women. His gift of empathy is so powerful, his ego can’t maintain its manipulative stance.

Ultimately, he tells a hard truth and gets fired, and ends up losing his power in a storm as he rescues his secretary who was thinking suicidal thoughts. But he finds redemptive love, both from his estranged daughter and the women who ends up with his job.

His transformation complete, his manipulative power is no longer necessary. He has escaped from the prison of the mirror, and he can simply be, live, and respond to others from his own integrity. He has become trustworthy.
So may we all.

Howie Jacobson, PhD, is the author of Google AdWords For Dummies. He has been an online marketing strategist since 1999, helping clients use the internet to discover, understand, attract and serve their ideal customers. He writes for Fast Company and Harvard Business, and his hippie credentials include teaching at a Quaker School, delivering singing telegrams as a summer job, and playing Ultimate Frisbee every chance he gets. He currently lives with his family in South Africa, where he’s learning to drive a stick shift and be more patient. Follow him at @askhowie, like him at, or sign up for his newsletter at

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