Business Class: Understand those around you

By Randall Kenneth Jones

Originally published in the Naples Daily News
Friday, October 25, 2013

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines empathy as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”

Take empathy into the business world and it becomes a powerful tool—especially when one expands the definition to include the study and analysis of those feelings.

After all, can anyone in business place too much emphasis on the value of the thoughtful understanding of another’s professional goals and motivations?

Just ask Dolph von Arx—a man who learned to maximize his empathetic nature.

Prior to his retirement, von Arx was Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President of Planters Lifesavers Company, an affiliate of RJR Nabisco Inc.

As Mr. Peanut’s right-hand man, von Arx was responsible for such household name products as Planters Peanuts, Lifesavers, Baby Ruth, Butterfinger and Carefree Gum.

Early in his career, he also took a keen interest in the (new) use of demographics and psychographics in the study of consumer buying habits.

Demographics—defined as a group of people that has a particular set of qualities—and psychographics—the study of personality, values, attitudes, interests and lifestyles—inspired von Arx to try to better understand what motivated his colleagues.

According to von Arx, “I found that a research concept that worked for marketers could be used to study human behavior within an organization.”

Though a marketer uses behavioral data to sell products and services, the rest of us need all the help we can get selling ourselves.

In von Arx’s view, personal characteristics such as vocabulary use, body language and even birth order provide a glimpse into an individual’s inner workings—well intentioned or otherwise.

“It’s not just about boss and employee; having an understanding of peer relationships is equally important,” he says. “The more you know about what drives someone’s behavior, the better you can empathize—and communicate—with them.”

After all, even Mr. Peanut may have a crusty exterior—but look inside and you find something quite different.

Several years ago, von Arx found himself pressured to finalize an international deal based on the perception that his return flight served as the ultimate deadline.

“It became clear they planned to wait until the last minute, hoping for a more favorable deal,” he recalls.

However, von Arx intuitively understood the tactic and did not concede. He changed his flight.

There’s little doubt that St. Louis-born von Arx’s fundamental appeal is also due to—what many refer to as—”Midwestern sensibilities.”

In person, von Arx exemplifies the region’s reputation for kindness, hospitality, common sense and, of course, empathy.

Besides, isn’t it always best to metaphorically put yourself on the same side of the table as those in your professional circles?

With the online resources available today, it’s inexcusable to enter a business relationship without a virtual dossier outlining the background and goals of a potential associate.

So take the time to empathize with others and understand their goals.

Despite your best intentions, sometimes you just have to change your flight.

Randall Kenneth JonesMarketing guru, business humoristprofessional-courtesy advocate, branded-content writer, creative-development consultant, and entertaining motivational speaker Randall Kenneth Jones is the creator of and the president of MindZoo, a marketing communications firm in Naples, Florida.

Pictured above: Former work associates: Mr. Peanut and Dolph von Arx.