Sounds in Darkness (Issue 580)

In which we are reminded that listening, really listening,  involves more than words.

One warn mid-summer Thursday evening, my wife and I stepped out to dinner. Following the meal, we walked through Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA to see the sights. About half-way through the walk, we heard ‘happy’ Dixieland brass music and people clapping enthusiastically. We ambled closer, seeing five young musicians performing in a small park.

During the course of the 45 minutes we sat there, they moved quickly through Dixieland to Gershwin (Porgy and Bess, the opera) to Rossini (Barber of Seville opera overture, this is a five piece brass ensemble, mind you) to Thomas Tallis and Handel. Not your average street performers, we thought. Extraordinary musicianship, lively presentation.

They stopped at 10:00. We asked, ‘Who are you?’ They turn out to be five guys in their twenties, the Synergy Quintet, a 260-gig per year classical brass ensemble. We learned that this ‘street’ performance was an ‘open rehearsal’ through which they wrap up two months of 12-hour rehearsal days off the road preparing for the fall season. And that most of their practice is conducted in the dark. Like, no lights. Pitch black. “So we have to listen to each other,” Bobby the first trumpet explained. “We have to learn how to listen to each others’ breathing and tone so we can play together.”

Reminded me of trumpet player Miles Davis’s concern for the space between notes more than the notes themselves.

What if our sales calls were made in person, in the dark? And, all we had to go on were the tones of voice and breathing of the people we were calling on. Think about the level of listening. Think about how we’d pay attention to each nuance of voice tone and pace, of breaths taken, of things not said as well as said. Imagine we were trying to “play WITH them’ to create valuable conversation as an ensemble rather than each of us waiting for a moment of silence we could fill with a fast, virtuoso solo (i.e. a broadcast, a pitch).

Maybe you’ve done this… sitting in the darkness with a friend or spouse for deep conversation… Grasping every possible sound and nuance, mind working feverishly to understand the meaning of each. Responding and waiting for the returning ‘echo’ of sound to know whether you were on the right track? Listening, in other words.

Virtually all sales training and practice has to do with speaking – formulating and asking questions, leading the discussion. Sure, we talk about ‘active listening’ and we do a couple of role-plays before we check ‘listening’ off the list. But very little practice or coaching focused on listening and interpreting, building our aural acuity at the same time we’re building our ‘oral’ acuity.

So try this at home. Or in staff meetings. Or a party. Even on the phone, ‘though it’s not quite the same as the dark. ‘Keeping us in the dark’ could take on a whole new meaning. The sounds in darkness.

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