Shut up and listen

I pride myself on catching on quickly. I like to think I get it without a lot of explanatory narrative. Maybe there is some amount of natural intuition involved, but mostly it takes active listening and making mental connections. So, by some mathematical property that should certainly apply broadly to touchy-feely analogies like these,I think that must make me a good listener.

Well, pride goeth before a fall.

Sometimes I get so caught up in making those mental connections and proving my comprehension that I slide right through the listening part. Luckily, there are often verbal cues to set me straight, to remind me to shut up and listen.

I was given one of those cues the other day. While I was rambling on about the point I thought my boss had made, he sat quietly, waiting for me to finish. I didn’t notice that his eyes had glazed over, nor did it occur to me that he wasn’t speaking or nodding. When I finally stopped to take a breath, I heard the cue resonate loud and clear–though my boss said it quietly.

Where I was going with this is…

Oops. Those words embarrassed me more than I can say. I had clearly missed the point. I should have kept listening instead of jumping in to show that I understood. Thankfully his reminder was gracious, and we moved forward without further attention to it. It made me stop and reflect, though. Regardless of what I think I know or how good I think I am at interpreting, it never, ever, ever hurts to shut up and listen. Even communications people need to be reminded every now and then.

Window shopping

I’ve spent much of my morning researching online publications and media kits. I’m working on a couple of projects that let me explore some untapped outlets, and really I do enjoy seeing what’s out there and available in areas I haven’t explored before now. The hard part is making sure I choose the right ones, and that ultimately involves a significant amount of good judgment. That means I have to get my hands around all the information I can, information that makes sense.

Believe it or not, it’s not that easy.

You’d think that an online publisher would want to demonstrate his commitment to online accessibility by providing necessary information online. Apparently, not everyone feels the same way. When I can find media kits, they don’t include rate cards. When I find rate cards, they aren’t linked to circulation demographics or spec requirements. When I find spec info, there’s no contact.

I understand wanting to have a live conversation to try to close the deal, but withholding critical information actually makes me less inclined to want to talk to someone. It seems like a sneaky way to get a foot in the door to deliver a fast-talking sales pitch. I think it would be better for everyone if all the pertinent information were available, so that live contact is based on inquiries that are already self-vetted. Kind of like window shopping before walking into a store. The store gets reasonably serious customers, and the customer knows there’s probably something inside that will interest him.

Here’s the thing. If you want to capture people’s attention–not just anyone’s attention, mind you, but the attention of your desired audience–you have to give them what they need. If you’re an online publisher, for example, show me your media kit, rate card, and how to get in touch with an advertising rep. (Not having contact info on a website is inexcusable in any scenario.) Don’t give me pieces and parts; give me everything relevant.

And oh, by the way, when you DO give me contact information, don’t simply give me a list of people who share the same title. How do I know which one to pick? Give me a clue–list territory, area of specialty, something that points me in the right direction.

Sometimes I think certain companies don’t actually want customers. These are such simple things; why are they so hard to find? All it takes is thinking like a customer.

Out of the blue

Oh boy, oh boy. I’m in the middle of a tough situation that I don’t know how to handle. That’s my problem, not yours, but it does give rise to an issue I find intriguing.

The issue is this. Sometimes life can be humming along–going well, badly, or somewhere in between, but at least moving in a predictable rhythm–and out of the blue, someone will ask a question that changes everything. Yes, the question itself changes things, the answer notwithstanding.

Simply by posing the question, I am thrust into a situation where I am expected to respond. Sometimes I’m even obligated, even if it is merely the result of social convention. Most of the time, even no answer is an answer itself; it says something about me.

So now I’m in a spot were someone has asked me a difficult question. I have to decide whether and how to answer, but no matter how I handle it, my behavior will send a signal all its own. I can ignore the request, decline to provide an answer, or tackle it head on. My actions matter just as much as my words.

I still don’t know how to handle my difficult situation, but I do know that I can’t take it lightly. I’m also reminded that when I am on the asking side, I need to be extremely judicious about the questions I pose. The receiving side of questions like these feels pretty uncomfortable, so if I’m doing the asking, I’d better have a darned good reason.

I know the person who asked me did.

Beyond your ZIP code

A colleague of mine asked me to fill in for him next week representing our company at the annual International Youth Exchange Expo. Given my long, storied history with youth exchange I agreed, even though it meant giving up a much of a precious Saturday. It could be fun, I thought, but probably fairly painless, regardless. I didn’t give it much thought beyond that.

Yesterday, one of the local promoters called me, ostensibly to make sure I have everything I need, but really to find out who I am and what I’m all about. It took about three-and-a-half seconds of conversation to plunge me headlong back into my deep-but-long-neglected passion for youth exchange. What I’m sure this man intended to be a five-minute conversation turned into a verbal exchange that lasted almost twenty. I guess I got a bit fired up.

By the time I hung up the phone, I was ready to send my kids, your kids, the neighbor kids, and random kids off the street somewhere–anywhere–to get a taste of the world that exists beyond their ZIP code. NOTHING has helped me more in the area of seeing things from another’s perspective and proactively seeking effective ways to communicate more than my exchange experiences. Being a stranger in a strange land will do that to a person.

Anyone can do this at any time. Put yourself in a place where you’re not comfortable. Get off the beaten path. Put away your guide book. Be the odd (wo)man out. It doesn’t matter whether you’re ten miles from home or ten thousand. When you find yourself in a place where you don’t share the local culture and can’t rely on collective inferences, you have to really listen to what other people are saying, become more alert to nuance, pick up the local accent, and reexamine your old standbys. And before you tell me you can’t/won’t/don’t want to travel somewhere exotic, I want to make it clear that all of this applies on the south side of town just as much as it applies south of the border.

So while you’re considering sending your kids on an exchange or hosting one yourself (hint, hint), think about how you can get out of your own comfort zone locally to reap the same benefits. Think, if you will, beyond your own ZIP code.

Oops, I’m getting fired up again.

My real MBA

Last week I toured a factory in New England that makes office furniture systems. If you think that this doesn’t have much to do with my everyday activities, you’re probably right. The visit was relevant to a project I’m handling, though, and I always find it interesting to see how things are made.

For some reason, this tour brought to mind the time I spent earning my MBA. Along with the others in my cohort (the class that moved through the program together), I found myself steeped in case studies and textbooks and discussions. I remember having the same initial reaction that I had at the furniture manufacturer: distantly relevant, but interesting nonetheless.

By the time I finished the program, I had realized something very important. It wasn’t the textbook material or the lectures that brought the most value to earning this degree. It was the people.

The true educational opportunity lay in spending three years with people from all industries and walks of life. I gained insights into how things work, how the real world runs, that could never be presented effectively in a lecture. I collected nuggets of information that I didn’t realize I had stuffed into the pockets of my brain until weeks, months, or years later when some problem or situation called for tapping into that gold mine.

I peeked into hi-tech manufacturing processes, insurance moguls, not-for-profits, law firms, drug companies, and mail-order distribution. I watched people juggle travel and work and families with varying degrees of success. I listened and learned and asked questions–we all did. And in the 13 years since I walked across the stage with hat and hood, I have found more applications than I ever expected for all this information that wasn’t covered on any syllabus.

Of course, I read volumes of case studies and textbook material. I wrote papers and made presentations. I stayed up late studying for tests. I completed evaluations of courses and professors at the end of every semester. I did all the things required to earn the letters behind my name, but my real MBA came from the people who did it alongside me.

So I’ll keep touring plants and asking questions and seizing opportunities to see how the world works. It all counts.

Stop the madness

Every now and then, someone sends me a message that really ticks me off. These messages are generally short, snarky, and pointless, designed simply to throw a barb my way for a perceived slight. I don’t get mad when I’ve really done something wrong–humble and embarrassed, maybe, but not mad. Strangely, it’s the undeserved barbs that hit their mark.

I got one of those messages this morning. I can thrust and parry with almost anyone when it comes to words, and I quickly typed my equally snarky response. And then I retyped it. And retyped it. I continued honing it to get it just right. With my cursor hovering over the send button, I hit delete instead. On purpose.

I’ve never done that before.

I’ve always risen to the challenge right along with my hackles. I respond in kind (that’s a funny expression when the response is usually not kind at all), and I end up sputtering and seething. And the cycle continues. No one needs that.

Inexplicably, this time I realized some key points. First, I didn’t act inappropriately to this person. Second, I didn’t owe him an explanation for anything. Third, he knows how to push my buttons, and I was poised to let him do it. By the time he had sent the message, he was already on to the next thing. Why should I spend the rest of my day stewing in this one?

It was up to me to continue the madness, and for once, I didn’t. I deleted my response, deleted, his email, and–writing this post notwithstanding–moved on. For whatever reason, I realized that it only takes one person to stop the madness. Anyone can be that person; today it was me.

I’ve got the power

Recently I’ve been pondering the distinction between can’t and won’t. Often we say that we can’t do something when really we mean we won’t. Recognizing the won’t carries with it the burden of responsibility–which is why I think we often avoid it–but it can also be extremely empowering.

Before I thoroughly confuse you with my esoteric blather, let me give you some practical examples.

1.  I can’t go to your retirement party because my son has a wrestling meet tonight. (Sure, I can, but I choose not to go because my son is more important to me.)

2.  I can’t send my kids on the People to People tour they’ve been invited to attend; it’s too expensive. (I can probably find a way to do it, but it would mean making sacrifices in other areas and I’m not willing to do that. The price is too high. Besides, I can find more cost-effective ways to help them see the world.)

3.  I can’t take that French class. My work schedule will cause me to miss too many classes. (No, I’m just not willing to rearrange my schedule or take time off. My job is more important to me than the class.)

These are real examples from my life, however minor. Although I believe I made the right decision in each case, simply saying I can’t does nothing to help me understand the underlying reasons, nor does it remind me that I really do have a choice. Can’t holds me powerless to circumstances; won’t forces me to take responsibility for my action (or inaction). It also gives me dominion over my life.

If you don’t see the importance of this one little word, try this. The next time you find yourself saying I can’t, ask yourself why not. Then ask yourself whether you have the power to change those reasons. If you do but you choose not to, then you have to recognize that you’re really in a won’t situation. Before long, you’ll realize that there are far more won’t situations than true can’t situations.

That’s when you realize you have the power to change your life.