Listening for success

A great deal of printed and digital advice is available for anyone seeking advice on how to attain success, financial or otherwise. I remember having acquired, somewhere along the line, a book titled Dress for Success, by Robert T. Molloy. From looking around me it appeared that more people (including me) bought the book than bought the advice. For me, it is far more important to listen to what people are saying, than to focus on what they are wearing.

Another “success” book is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It has been quite a durable title across generations of readers, apparently. In my college days the book was held in contempt as advising how to hypocritically manipulate people. In my son’s generation, I think it was taken as sound advice on how to get one’s head out of a computer and relate meaningfully to people, which includes listening.

Many years ago I got one of my best lessons about listening for success in business from the late, lamented Peter Zacher, who many of you knew. He was making an advertising-sales call to a Midwest-headquartered auxiliary-equipment manufacturer on behalf of the former Plastics Machinery & Equipment magazine, and I was along as an editor to make a courtesy call and see whether I could extract some information for a press release.

I got more than I had in mind, I’ll tell you that. As soon as Peter and I showed up, the auxiliary-equipment company president set off on a tirade about the current state of affairs in politics, how bad things were, whose fault it was, and on and on. I was dumbfounded. Peter did not seem surprised. I think maybe he had heard this rant before.

So what did Peter do about that situation? It didn’t take me long to find out. He just listened, for as long as it took. After 10-15 minutes of this jeremiad, the customer wound down. Peter had listened and when the customer got his gripes off his chest he felt better. It was then that Peter stepped up and presented what he had in mind for the next year’s advertising program. Peter sold him a 6X, full-tabloid page, full-color ad schedule at a cost of some tens of thousands of dollars and the customer was happy about it. I truly believe that was because Peter had the good sense to just listen.

By the way, I had no idea what Peter’s personal politics were. I still don’t, and now he’s gone. I never asked, and he never told me. It didn’t matter. While doing business, he just listened.

Our society doesn’t value listening very highly. I see recommendations everywhere on what to tell people, and very little about listening to people. There are now available some books on the art or science of listening, but it’s not something that can be learned very well out of a book. Meanwhile, other real-life examples have also driven my own interest in listening.

In working some years ago as a volunteer with a local college campus committee dedicated to student wellbeing, I met a retired widow, a member of the committee, who had a gift for listening. Aside from committee meetings, she came to the campus once or twice a month, set up a card table and a sign that said “Listening Post,” and was available for 2 hours, but at a limit of 15 minutes per person. She was besieged. It’s hard to imagine how much people just need to be listened to. She had no counseling or related credentials, and did not purport to have any. But she could and did listen.

A lot of my listening is done in coffee shops. I do writing and editing work there, or anywhere else that I have my laptop computer. But I also interact with the other denizens of the coffee shop, and a fair share of the time I just listen. Sometimes I mention to my wife later, in confidence, something that someone has shared with me regarding their family, employer, or health status. One reaction has been, “Why do people tell you this stuff?” I have two answers. The first is, I just don’t know. The second is, people need to be listened to.

Our previous OpEd piece in this slot was on the subject of collaboration. The beginning of collaboration is listening. There is no way to collaborate in getting the right equipment installed or the right component produced until we listen to what the customer wants and needs. Not that we need “focus” groups, but we need to give some credence to somebody else’s agenda, and not just be bent on dispensing our own. May we all seek to improve our listening skills in the New Year.

Merle R. Snyder
--January 2012


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