Old Habits (Issue 534)

In which we are encouraged to ask others to help us identify and correct old habits that hold us back.

From the “I can’t believe I’m going to tell you this story and you probably won’t either and there won’t be many secrets left after I tell you this one” department: for several decades, I have had a problem eating. Actually, I haven’t had a problem “eating,” as in chewing, swallowing, and enjoying the multiple benefits of a balanced diet. I had a problem getting food into my mouth reliably. (I can see my spouse and children rolling their eyes now.)

Yes, I have had difficulties getting food into my mouth. I have sometimes been embarrassed by my difficulties. I have adapted to them by avoiding certain foods when I’m with friends or clients. But I have had no idea, REALLY, what has been the problem or what to do about it. I have been feeding myself since I was two years old; I’m supposed to have mastered this skill a long time ago.

Well. During a pre-flight meal at an airport food court, I managed to spear the left side of my mouth with my fork as I was attempting to ingest a portion of a black bean burrito. It hurt! And the food fell to my plate. I sighed, frustrated and embarrassed. Another miss.

I looked around, hoping that nobody had noticed, and I spotted a mother feeding her toddler, two tables over from mine. I noticed that she was holding her spoon perpendicular to the child’s mouth, inserting the food parallel with his tongue.  And I thought to myself, “She is not spearing the left side of his mouth. He is getting more food in his mouth than I am. What am I doing wrong?”

And that was when I discovered that for the last several decades, I have been using my fork more or less the same way I learned to use it when I was two years old. I have been raising the fork to my mouth at a 45° angle rather than at a 90° angle, straight in.

Now, here’s the thing. I have known that I have had some difficulties for more than 40 years. I have adapted to them.  I have admired people whose table techniques have allowed them to eat without spilling so much as a crumb. Yet, for reasons you can probably imagine, I never asked anybody to watch what I was doing and help me figure it out.

Why? Because everyone is supposed to know how to feed themselves, right? What kind of nutcase would be asking another adult to watch him eat to figure out why he couldn’t get salad into his mouth more consistently?

And that led me to wonder: What sorts of sales habits did any of us learn in the toddler years of our careers that are now holding us back because we didn’t adapt them as we grew to adulthood in sales.

They could be anything: The way we shake hands, our bad breath, our voice inflection when we say goodbye on the telephone, the way we phrase questions, our tie knots, the way we interrupt and talk over people,  the way we hitch up our pants, the way we laugh, the way we divert our eyes, our transitions between subjects, our propensity to immediately respond to any perceived problem with a solution rather than digging around with open questions.

And we may recognize as I did there are things  amiss but we have learned to adapt to them and we are too embarrassed or “too old for this” to ask somebody to help us figure them out. Right?

Like me with a fork, it’s just assumed that we’ve long ago mastered whatever it is and our clients and colleagues have long assumed that “it” is just part of our style and they have adapted to it or rolled their eyes or avoided us or done business with someone else  or whatever.

Reflecting on 50 years of fork mishaps, I can only shake my head and say: “We’re better than that.” Let’s all ask a knowledgeable somebody we trust to watch us sell and tell us about the irritating, counterproductive, “you should have grown out of this a long time ago” habits, tics, and styles that detract from our appearance and effectiveness with our clients.

Seriously! Just as I am better than my long run of poor fork skills, we are all better than whatever other  invisible but irritating  personal or selling habits we are dragging along with us that have been holding us back.

Perhaps, like me, you will have to think about the changes before every meal or call for a while until you master it. But you’ll get the hang of it, and you’ll be all the more effective as a result of losing the old habits. Perhaps even better fed.

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