Gartner Blog Network

Phyllis Diller and the power of being present for others

by Mark P. McDonald  |  August 21, 2012  |  1 Comment

A giant in comedy passed away yesterday, Phyllis Diller.  You may not remember her as she was 95 at the time of her passing, but she was instrumental in breaking down the gender barrier in comedy and provided an example of what it takes to adapt to changing times as her career took off in 1952 and she remained relevant more than 50 years latter.  As a very very young kid, probably too young, I saw her on Laugh-in and other TV shows and I was fascinated by someone so over the top that she could easily speak the truth and get a laugh.  I guess my parents were more progressive than I thought.  But that is not the reason I will always remember Ms. Diller.  I will always remember her because of a story someone told me and the lesson it illustrated.

Here is the story and the lesson.

I was attending a class on negotiation skills and the instructor was talking about the idea of being ‘present’ in the negotiation.  The instructor, a guy named Ed Morler from LA, had attended an Oscar’s party where he first met Ms. Diller.  The story as I remember it goes something like this.

“Ed was standing on the patio, looking out across a large back yard and garden. There were people everywhere talking to each other.  Each looking to see who you were, if you were someone they needed to talk to and if not, then they would politely move onto another person.  Naturally all of this introducing and reintroducing caused the crowd to circulate and he could see it all from the patio. 

The crowd was mixing except for one spot over in the corner. There people seemed to stick, they seemed to gravitate to a woman who was in the center of the group.  He originally thought that this must be one of the A list guests that everyone was milling about.  So he made his way from the patio to the corner and to my surprise it was Phyllis Diller in the center of the crowd and the object of everyone’s attention.  Now Phyllis had not been on TV for some dozen years or so, but there she was the center of attention.

Ed watched the crowd, watched Phyllis curious to see what her secret was.  All through the night she held court.  Sure people came and left, but she was never alone and several times people came back to join the group.  She was like nectar and the crowd was like bees. 

As the night ended and the party drew to a close, Ed approached Ms. Diller pointing out that he had noticed the crowd and how they responded to her.  He wanted to know her secret, why was she the center of the party even though there were other people there who were on the A list.

Ms. Diller’s reply was simple as Ed recounted she simply said  ‘when someone meets me and I meet them I treat them like they are the only person on the earth.  They have my full, active attention and interest.  I am present there with them and no one else.’ 

‘You see everyone seeks validation. Everyone wants to know that they are important and not just a stepping stone or important so long as no one else comes along.   When people feel this, when you show it, it is like a drug and they want more of it, they know when it is gone and they remember where to get it.’

That story put an abstract idea – presence – into a tangible context and an experience that I will never forget.

Being present for someone, validating them, treating them as if they are the only one on earth is a feeling that we all need to feel more often and give to others.

So that is why I will always remember Phyllis Diller and perhaps why you should too.

Catch her and her unique brand of comedy on YouTube – its well worth the time.

Category: leadership  personal-observation  

Tags: personal-observation  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Phyllis Diller and the power of being present for others

  1. Richard Fouts says:

    Boy, did this bring back memories. I used to sneak out of bed and listen to my parents watching Phyllis Diller on TV … for whenever one’s parents say, “you’re too young to watch this” that’s all you want to do. I remember thinking the same thing noted in this blogpost …. that she gets laughs by simply speaking the truth (which in many cases, was how she really felt about her mother-in-law). And of course, her ability to tell a story was second to none.

Comments are closed

Comments or opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors only, and do not necessarily represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management. Readers may copy and redistribute blog postings on other blogs, or otherwise for private, non-commercial or journalistic purposes, with attribution to Gartner. This content may not be used for any other purposes in any other formats or media. The content on this blog is provided on an "as-is" basis. Gartner shall not be liable for any damages whatsoever arising out of the content or use of this blog.