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Listening to What People Do

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Almost every weekday morning this past summer, I went to my local YMCA to exercise. When entering the gym, you stop to grab a key from the YMCA staff to put your things in a locker.

There are hundreds of different locker keys. Like most people, I am a creature of habit and I want to choose the exact same locker every time. Locker key 161. After two days of choosing locker number 161 - the YMCA staff member started to listen to my habit.

The next day when I sped down the stairs towards the locker room, the YMCA attendant grabbed locker key 161 and handed it to me all in one motion as I entered the locker room. No words even exchanged - she knew exactly what I wanted.

By listening to what I do, she saved me maybe all of 15 seconds. But the emotional feeling that she paid attention and knew exactly what I wanted without me asking - powerful. It made me come back again and again. Because I knew the YMCA cared.

A month later, I again went down the stairs towards the lockers. She was gone. And the new locker attendant listened to what I said, but not what I did. I had to ask for locker key 161 everyday, and he never noticed or remembered.

A few months later I cancelled my membership. The price was a factor, but the emotional reason was about the locker key. The expectation evaporated. YMCA cared about me, but removed the feeling of connection.


Retention, the data said, was driven by emotional factors, such as whether the employees knew members’ names or said hello when they walked in.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Duhigg tackles the idea of habits with a parallel example of the YMCA in his book. The YMCA tabbed a social scientist, Bill Lazarus, and a mathematician, Dean Abbott, to learn more about retaining their customers.

The data found people go to the gym for a human connection. Not to exercise. People go to the YMCA for social reasons - to meet a friend. And when they meet a friend, they are much more likely to keep coming back.

When the locker attendant grabbed locker key 161 without me saying a word, she made a connection with me. It was familiar to see her, and it kept bringing me back.

Until she left, and the experience became foreign. Not familiar.


Empathy is motivation. And as a listener, empathy is your greatest skill. Because there are two ways to listen.

You can listen to what people say, sure. But you will be far more effective if you listen to what people do.

Seth Godin, Two Ways to Listen



Find me on Twitter @cjgallo or GitHub @gallochris or Instagram @heygallo.