Do You Really Want to Hear (Issue 511)

In which we are reminded about the subtle cues we use to control conversation and how they affect what we learn from clients.

“It’s in how you ask the question, the eye contact, your body language. Are you really wanting to hear the answer or do you want to move on?”

My wife and I had just returned from a neighborhood pre-Christmas party. 25 people, folks that we see every year at this party plus new neighbors who had moved in during the year. Each of the families contributes food to the table and hors d’oeuvres. It’s a magnificent spread. People are happy, glad to see each other, catching up on up to a year’s worth of news.

I consider myself fairly sociable and conversational in these settings. However, when we came home, my wife returned with all kinds of information about the neighbors’ mothers, sisters, jobs, husbands, former husbands, kids, and on and on. “I got nothing” would be too harsh an assessment of my own learning during the evening and there was a dramatic difference between what I had learned and what my wife had learned.

Some of this I can chalk up to gender differences. For the most part, the men didn’t reveal much to each other and the women didn’t reveal much to the men. Okay, that’s fairly standard. However, beyond that, my wife’s critique of my conversational approach during the evening prompted me to remember countless times that someone at work or in the community has asked me about my vacation and, when I started to tell them, their eyes glazed over and they moved away gently. The question, “How was your vacation?”, was not intended to open a dialogue; rather, the question was a simple “hello, I notice you’re back” masquerading as interest in my experience.

“It’s in how you ask the question, the eye contact, your body language. Are you really wanting to hear the answer or do you want to move on?”

I think this happens in sales calls, too. Those task focused, heat seeking, goal driven sales colleagues we number among our friends have learned to ask “socially polite” or deftly-put “high-level” questions about a client or a business and their phrasing, eye contact, and body language all say, “You know, I don’t give a ___ about any of this, I just want to know whether you need the product I am selling so I can get paid and move on to the next victim I’m going to sell.” Or words to that effect.

Of course it’s not that bad! Often, we communicate that distance very subtly – it could be a mere flicker of an eye or a slight change in vocal intonation that tells our clients that we don’t  really care, let’s just get on to the facts and see what I can sell.

I was really floored when my wife said what she said to me. I asked myself: “Where was my head during that party?”

It’s probably true that the neighborhood Christmas party isn’t the ideal time to dig into the pain and suffering that goes with an aging parent or an alcoholic sister, the challenges of dealing with the college child who is spiraling out of control, and other really important issues that we  and our neighbors wrestle with. On the other hand, my wife managed to come home with headlines and details from soft conversations while taking broiler pans out of an oven or  putting out hors d’oeuvres. I ate the food… and I got nothing.

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