In 2012, I spent a month living in an ashram in Nasik, India. Each day started at 5am with two hours of yoga. I ate an entirely vegetarian diet (often in silence) and chewed every bite 30 times before swallowing. I taught yoga, honed my meditation, and learned advanced breathing and cleansing techniques, one of which involved saltwater-induced vomiting.
Believe it or not, much of what I learned at the Ashram can be applied to business development and sales (well, maybe not that last thing...).
1. Be flexible
The value of physical flexibility in yoga is obvious, and by the end of my stay at the ashram I'd made significant gains: my bends were deeper, my twists twistier, and on good days I could literally put my foot in my mouth. But this practice exercised a relational and psychological flexibility as well. Life at the ashram was often repetitive and boring; we were stripped of our devices and required to adhere to long bouts of silence while eating, doing chores, and practicing poses. Disruptions to the monotony often came in the form of unexpected, last-minute announcements ("Excellent two-hour yoga session. The fire ceremony was cancelled, so let's take it from the top!"). This forced me to unclench and cultivate a more go-with-the-flow, flexible attitude. With this mindset, I was (usually) able to accept these changes with more grace, and sometimes (not often) even enjoy the ride.
During one of my first business pitches, I remember being so attached to our pre-planned proposal that I wasn't even able to hear the people sitting across from me. Reflecting back, it's clear they weren't interested, and yet I kept pushing them on the narrow track that I had scoped out ahead of time.
Things rarely go as you expect in business development, so it's important to roll with the punches and constantly reassess. Remember: "Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape": the sooner you accept that the majority of deals end far differently than you imagined they would, the better positioned you'll be to adjust and seize new opportunities you originally didn't consider.
2. Cultivate a sense of oneness
The Hindu principle of non-dualism states that the separateness we perceive between ourselves and others is an illusion: all things are one.
In negotiations, it can be easy to fall into an "us vs. them" mentality, where closing a deal is about making someone else do what you want (which, as I've discussed in a previous post, can result in some seriously nasty consequences). Instead, focus on common, mutually-beneficial interests and remember that the person across the table isn't as different from you as you might think.
Specifically, spend time learning about the people you're working with, and remember the details they tell you. After a first meeting or call with a potential partner, I try to write a few tweet-sized notes about who they are. It's surprising how far tidbits like "Has two boys," "going on vacation next month with family" and "frustrated with management" can go in moving a partnership from the transactional to the relational.
Another good rule of thumb is to always offer something (e.g. coffee or a snack) when receiving an in-person visit, and always accept something offered (within reason) when visiting a client yourself. Gifting is a powerful way to signal trust and break down illusions of separateness.
My time at the ashram was the definition of repetitive practice. By the end of my stay, I must've done the same series of poses and sanskrit chants over a thousand times.
Sales, like yoga, requires constant practice with no clear cap on mastery: no matter how good you are, there are always ways to deepen that Downward Dog or open up that Happy Baby.
Before making an internal or external pitch, I've made a habit of recording myself as if I'm in the actual meeting, then watching the video and noting my errors. Wash, rinse, repeat. This method of "deliberate practice" is a tried and true method. Here's a great, quick read from Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng on how he used deliberate practice to improve his lecturing techniques.
Don't fall into the trap of believing that mental rehearsal or quietly reviewing your notes before meetings will suffice. Go through the motions, make mistakes, and then correct them. It's in this space that learning and improvement flourish.
4. Be quiet.
I talk too much. This became painfully obvious on the Ashram's "silence days," during which we were barred from communicating -- verbally or non-verbally -- with any other human. (I'm not ashamed to admit that I got pretty close with the Ashram's dairy cow during these periods- such a great listener.)
Good sales, like good yoga, is about listening. Most of the time, listening to (and truly absorbing) your partner's goals will bring you nearer to closing than anything you can say. Additionally, most people enjoy talking, so why not indulge them while collecting valuable information that will make you a more effective and strategic partner?
To keep myself in check, I often aim for a 20:80 ratio of my talking time compared to my partner's, but I'd guess that even in my best attempts to over-correct, I probably still land somewhere closer to 50:50.
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I walked away from my Ashram experience feeling more in touch with myself and those around me. Paradoxically, this feeling of connectedness resulted from hours of isolation and introspection, from focusing on my thoughts, my body, and my experience.
In BD and sales, where success is often contingent upon your attunement to the outside world and those within it, this ability and willingness to look inwards is paramount. I struggle with this at times. So much of this work is focused on the external: on pitches, meetings, and panels. But my experience at the ashram taught me that honest introspection and mindfulness is necessary to effectively relate to and move others. By cultivating an awareness of our own experiences, we become more aware of the experience of others; by looking inward, the outside world comes into clearer focus.
At least I think that's what my Guru told me- I wasn't really listening at the time.