Shark Attack

In which we are reminded about the power of boundaries in the questions we ask.

The fire, it turned out, was in the basement of one of my favorite Cambridge, Massachusetts Victorian-era houses. As I came around the corner onto Garden Street, I saw a ladder truck, a pumper, three firemen huddled in a conversation, a 6” hose running down Follen Street, and several smaller Fire Department vehicles parked at various intervals either side of the hose.

I spotted a Cambridge police officer standing ten yards away from the firemen.

“What happened?”, I asked.

“Shark attack,” he said. Sounded like “shahk attack.”

I thought I’d misheard him so I said, “Sorry, could you say that again?”

“Shark attack,” he replied.

Still, I didn’t understand so I leaned in a bit and turned my head so my right ear aimed at his face.

“S h a r k  attack,” he repeated.

I straightened up and looked at his face, clueless.

He paused for a moment and then broke up, laughing, and said, “I’m just playing. No sharks. There was a fire in the basement of one of the houses down the street on the right.”

“Shark attack,” I repeated, finally getting the joke. A playful city police officer. “You got me good! I had to ask three times.”

We laughed, bid each other good day, and I wondered, “How could that have gone differently?”

I asked, “What happened?” I assumed that the officer and I were working in the same context – fire on Follen Street. However, I didn’t include any boundaries in my question and he answered playfully from a context that might be suitable on a Cape Cod beach: “Shark attack.”

I recognized the game.

Sometimes, when salespeople call on me, soliciting Clarity’s business, they start our discussion with a broad request like: “Tell me about your business”. In those cases, I reply by telling them about the number of reams of paper we use in a year.

After a few seconds of that, they back up and say, “No, no, what I meant was…” and then they’ll ask me a question that includes boundaries, for example, “How was your business affected by the Covid pandemic?” or “What are your top priorities for this year?”

A much more productive starting point.

Nick Miller is President of Clarity Advantage based in Concord, MA. He assists banks and credit unions to generate more and more profitable relationships, faster, with business clients, their owners, and their employees through better sales strategies and execution. Additional articles on Clarity’s web site.

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