You Can Learn A Lot (Issue 646)

In which we are reminded: We expand our conversational repertoire by listening to others.

She stood with her back to me, organizing a now rumpled mound of sweatshirts on a table just inside the Harvard Coop entrance. Her slightly severe eyes followed a group of teenagers that had noisily swarmed the area, picking up bits of displayed clothing, examining them, and dropping them back to tables.

“I’ll bet you could spend the whole evening doing that,” I commented, noticing the continuous flow of browsers and flingers.

She nodded and smiled briefly, then turned back to the sweatshirts. She lifted one from the mound and put it face down, then folded it, perfectly, in five quick motions – about seven seconds.

Fascinated (and reflecting on my slower and less precise results folding dress shirts for travel), I stepped a little closer to the table and asked, curiously, “Would you please do that again?”

“Sure,” she replied. She repeated the process… then raised her hands as if she had just finished tying a calf in a calf-roping competition.

I looked at the sweatshirt. Perfectly, proportionately folded.

“Amazing,” I gushed, smiling. “Where did you learn that?”

“I don’t know. From watching someone else, I guess.”

“You can observe a lot by watching,” New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra once mused.

When I left for Denver a few days later, three perfectly folded shirts went with me. You can observe a lot by watching.

And (when it comes to navigating conversations), we can hear a lot by listening… to voice tones, accents, phrasing, lines of questioning, and transitions in business and social conversations that surround us every day.

How to (or how NOT to) say, “no,” graciously. How to introduce a new idea to someone who is resistant. How to redirect an awkward conversation gently. How to “peel the onion” with an evasive someone without bludgeoning them.

All can be learned by absorbing bits and snatches of conversations overheard in stores, at the next table in restaurants, on train platforms, in the family room as Gramma plays with the grandchildren, or in business meetings or sales calls with fellow consultants or sellers.

We just need to listen a lot so we can hear… Then note what we hear for future reference, when we wonder “I wonder how I could say that better?

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