Ready Comprehension (Issue 461)

In which we are reminded to listen beyond the point at which we think we know the solution to a client’s problem or challenge.

Packing some boxes packed for the office move that’s two weeks away, I found my 25-year-old copy of Dune, one of Frank Herbert’s inspiring, disturbing science fiction novels. Through his novels, Herbert wrote about several themes including governments, power, and knowledge. In one, he wrote (read this slowly):

“Ready comprehension is often a knee-jerk response and the most dangerous form of understanding. It blinks an opaque screen over your ability to learn. The judgmental precedents of law function in that way, littering your path with dead ends. ”

The first sentence is worth reading again. “Ready comprehension is often a knee-jerk response and the most dangerous form of understanding. ”

In the sales world, we tell our clients and prospects, “My experience helps me understand your challenges and recommend solutions that will help you reach your goals. ” We ask questions, looking for familiar patterns and business issues. Finding one, we think eagerly, “Ah, I see the picture” [our “ready comprehension”] and expertly pronounce product information and stories about our success other clients [our judgmental precedents].

When we work from our “ready comprehension” experience in this way, we risk the “opaque screen” blinking over our abilities to learn because we leap to conclusions too fast, based upon our judgmental precedents. Limited by the opaque screen, we stop asking questions once we think we have enough information to support pitching an idea or a product. We hear “objections [the “dead ends,” in Herbert’s quote] when we recommend solutions that don’t fit because we responded based on “ready comprehension” rather than digging for deeper understanding.

Herbert wrote elsewhere, “The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something that we don’t understand. ”

To serve our clients best, we must discover things about them that we may not understand and for which they don’t have ready answers — e. g. asking questions about their goals, strategies, personal and business values, policies and preferences, and trade-offs among alternatives. Such discussion creates new knowledge leading to recommendations that are different and more valuable than those our competitors may suggest.

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