What A $5 Shake Can Teach You About Coaching

Empathy is asking “What’s going on beneath the surface with this person?” 

Not answering it. 

Just asking it. Being open to finding the answer. 

Letting that be the starting point. 

In Pulp Fiction, when Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) pull up to to Jack Rabbit Slims, it’s on the grounds that VV is responsible for taking MW out for entertainment, and MW has picked a place she thinks an Elvis guy like VV will appreciate. 

Both characters are attempting to show up in some amount of service to the other, as well as to have a good time for themselves. 

They’re closely guarded people. 

A hitman and a gangster’s wife can’t just speak openly. 

So they have to feel out what’s going on beneath each other’s surface. 

The scene plays out with using the setting, the menu, and their anxieties to get a safe understanding of each other. 

There’s the meta reminder too – that everyone is just an actor at the drive-in (or drive-by) of everyone else’s life. But let’s stay higher level. Think about the interaction. 

The big exchange in this scene, for me, has always been,

VV: Did you just order a five-dollar shake?

MW: Mmhm. 

VV: That’s a shake. That’s milk and ice cream. 

MW: Last I heard. 

VV: That’s five dollars… (to the waiter) You don’t put bourbon in it or nothin’?

Waiter: No. 

VV: Just checking. 

Waiter: I’ll be right back with your drinks. 

(Important to mention, “Lonesome Town” by Ricky Nelson starts playing in the background, insert your own meta-commentary here, but I mean, it’s a song about being surrounded while isolation, (this really is a perfect movie))

[The characters each smoke a hand-rolled cigarette and start to talk. It’s awkward. And they also fumble with details each of them does and doesn’t know about the other. The song keeps playing, the camera keeps panning. 

Their drinks show up and VV asks to taste the $5 shake. There’s some added tension over using the straw. He acknowledges how good it is, and, a dramatically noteworthy pause happens.] 

MW: Don’t you hate that?

VV: Hate what?

MW: Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bulls*** in order to be comfortable?

VV: I don’t know. That’s a good question. 

MW: That’s when you know you’ve found somebody really special. When you can just shut the f*** up for a minute and comfortably share silence. 

The scene goes on from here, but this is the moment we came here for. 

Empathy is asking, without answering, with the intention to listen for whatever is truly going on within another person’s experience. 

It’s really (really, really) hard to make space for somebody else. 

It’s really hard to be surrounded by movie posters, and characters, and social tensions, and just listen. 

We’ll go all the way into distraction-land. We’ll yak about bulls***. We’ll take drugs to get away from ourselves and from others. 

It’s a lonesome town.

But we can learn to appreciate uncomfortable moments of silence in service of being empathetic, in services of actually being with others. 

As separate from ourselves as they can be. As in their worlds as they might be. As of another life they may be. 

And that’s a superpower. 

When Mia Wallace says it’s special, she’s not lying. 

If you want to be a good coach (or advisor, or leader, or…) learn to love the uncomfortable moments of silence, and seize the special in the space when you just shut the f*** up. 

Ps. And then we dance. And then we win. And hopefully, then we learn to see others in a safe, healthy way, and not just that we are bound by what we have to keep silent going forward. Go rewatch the movie. I’m way overdue – h/t David R., Brian P., and everybody else who keeps making me think of this movie lately)