What can Dr. Hannibal Lecter teach you about doing deals?
Dear Remora - what is a film I can recommend to my BD team to watch this holiday season that highlights a valuable lesson about building partnerships?
Movie Buff BD Manager
Dear Movie Buff BD Manager -
Good news: I don’t just have a film for you, I have a specific scene from a modern classic that highlights one of the most important principles of building partnerships … and relationships.
Bad news: you may not want to recommend this film to your team.
The Silence of the Lambs is hailed as one of the best psychological thrillers ever. Based on a best-selling novel by Thomas Harris, the film won all major Oscar categories in 1994. There are only three films have EVER done that. And no film has accomplished the feat since.
The Silence of the Lambs is about a partnership negotiated on screen between its two central characters, both legendary actors: Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins).
As you’ll find below, central to the film is an insight that closely applies to building partnerships. This scene is useful for your team to consider because, as Albert Camus once said, "fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
Clarice Starling, an ambitious, young FBI cadet has been assigned a huge case. Clarice’s task is to find a serial killer nicknamed Buffalo Bill. And she’s under enormous time pressure. Clarice must find Buffalo Bill before he kills a woman he has kidnapped, a US Senator’s daughter named Catherine. But to find one serial killer Clarice must build a relationship with another.
The FBI sends Clarice to meet with Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a convicted killer and former psychiatrist. Clarice must negotiate a relationship with Dr. Lecter to gain insights that she can use to understand and capture Buffalo Bill.
The key scene
In this pivotal but often overlooked scene, Dr. Lecter gives Clarice what she wants most from him: a clue to finding Buffalo Bill.
Dr. Lecter says:
“First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask: what is it, in itself? What is its nature? What does he do … this man you seek?”
That clue will later prove to be essential to Clarice’s quest.
But first, Dr. Lecter shifts the dialogue back to Clarice. Based on their previous conversations, he asks about her childhood:
“After your father's murder, you were orphaned. You were ten years old. You went to live with cousins, on a sheep and horse ranch in Montana. And … ?”
Clarice explains that she awoke one morning to a horrible sound on the ranch. She followed the sound to a barn where she discovered lambs screaming as they awaited slaughter. She opened a gate in an attempt to free the lambs. Then she grabbed one lamb in her arms and tried to run away with it.
Dr. Lecter then asks Clarice a question:
“You still wake up sometimes, don't you? Wake up in the dark, with the lambs screaming? Do you think, if Catherine lives, you won't wake up in the dark, ever again, to the screaming of the lambs?
There is a reason the film’s title is derived from this scene.
What this scene means for you
Dr. Lecter's question reminds us of a universal truth: each of us is driven by forces within that shape our behavior. Those drives often originate from the stories that we tell ourselves to make sense of the trauma we experience as children.
As a child, violence left Clarice fatherless. In response, she tried to protect the helpless. She tries to save the lambs. As an adult, Clarice is driven to save the innocent.
To understand and influence a partner you must dig beneath the surface - seek to understand the experiences and drives that shape their behavior.
Dr. Lecter's insight is fundamental: “Of each particular thing, ask: what is it, in itself? What is its nature?
The Chief Product Officer that you’re trying to influence … what is his nature? He builds new products. But why?
The Finance VP whose buy-in you need … what is her nature? She manages financial risk. But why? What story does she tell herself about her role? What need does her role fulfill for her? How can you help her fulfill that need?
How can you help her save her lambs?
Tips for uncovering what drives your partner
Do your homework - When this scene begins, Dr. Lecter asks Clarice, “I read the case files, did you?” Dr. Lecter does his homework. Do you? Do you gather information to develop a detailed understanding of your partner as a person? Where did they grow-up? Where did they go to school? What experiences have shaped them? What challenges do they face at work?
Lead with curiosity - years ago (pre-covid) I asked a partner “how do you find working from home, given the rest of your team is all at headquarters?” His answer - about the loneliness he experienced working remotely - opened up a conversation and a relationship that proved critical to the deal we eventually signed. To understand what drives your partner you need to ask them. But before you fire off personal questions you need to listen and observe. Put yourself in their shoes. You will build far more trust when you ask a question that demonstrates you have taken the time and energy to listen.
Open up - People share with people who share. If you want to gain insight into someone else, you will likely need to share something about yourself. What are your dreams and passions? What setbacks or losses have shaped you? Be prepared with what you’re ready to open up about yourself … and what you’re not.
Find the right space - to build a real relationship, get out of the conference room. Do not rely on zoom calls. Ask your partner to dinner, get a drink or go on a walk. If you want to gain new insight into someone you may need to change the venue.
Here is the scene between Clarice and Dr. Lecter (1:35 - 6:35) - a masterpiece between two acting legends …
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