Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Can you hear me now?

By Dick Hirsch
Most people would rather be talking than listening. Can we agree on that? I hope so because the statistics for years have shown that people are captivated by the sound of their own voices and while they take advantage of every speaking opportunity they generally don’t enjoy listening.

The result is that often most of what is being said in any meeting, forum or personal conversation isn’t heard. The International Listening Association, which has hopes of someday remedying that situation, claims to have found some dispiriting data, data that should dismay both talkers and listeners. They say that most people retain only half of what was said immediately after they hear it. With the passage of time the situation worsens; they only remember 20 percent of what they heard.

That is discouraging because of the quantity of spoken rhetoric that is available today. It comes at us from every direction, but we are not dealing here with 24/7 cable talk or any of the electronic media. We are talking about person to person engagement, real people having real conversations.

I make no special claims for unusual ability as either a talker or a listener. However, a recent interlude in my personal life brought the question of listening to center stage. I encountered a person with whom I am familiar at a social event. We greeted and exchanged pleasantries in the usual manner. Then the person asked me a question regarding a matter of general interest.

As you will understand, I spend much of my time asking questions. Yes, and since it is a necessary skill, I listen to the answers. The responses often become material for this column and other projects involving the written word. I’ve always been frank to admit that I am far better at asking questions than answering them, but it is always flattering to be asked. So I replied. It wasn’t a long reply because brevity is always a consideration.

As I spoke I noticed the eyes of the questioner began to refocus, peering beyond my face, scanning the activity in the background. I realized I was talking to a wall.

I’m sure you must have experienced that type of situation in your own life. It happens everywhere people gather and conversations take place, the office, the club, the coffee shop, or the territory where a potential seller intersects with a potential buyer. Most people think that being talkative is the essential characteristic of every successful sales person, no matter what product is being sold. However, sales training specialists insist that it isn’t the verbose person who usually gets the order. Rather, it is the competitor who is the patient listener, the person who is likely to later remember and understand the customer’s needs.

My early experience came when I was working as a door-to-door salesman during a summer vacation from college. The district manager advised me simply: “Look them in the eye and ask them questions related to the problems that can be solved by using our products. Then pay attention to the answers.” His concept was that the potential customer would be more likely to become a buyer if you seemed to be interested in his or her needs.
We all base our attitudes on past experience and role models. Many people don’t realize it, but role models come in two versions, positive and negative. If you develop a positive role model then you attempt to emulate that approach; if it is a negative role model, you do the exact opposite. Years later when I spent some time as a salesman, I was fortunate enough to recognize the boss as a negative role model. He was very effusive; the general view of him was that he talked himself out of many orders.

Listening isn’t simple. It is an indispensable ability for every journalist and I am still striving to improve that skill. As a young reporter I often became inattentive and impatient; stories couldn’t be recounted as quickly as I would have preferred. I soon learned that there are times that require speed and other times that require a more unhurried pace. Just a few weeks ago I had finished an interview and closed my notebook when the subject, as an afterthought, made a casual comment which really resonated and changed my approach.

This column gives no advice but my feeling is that listening is an art that deserves equality with talking. Can you hear me now?


Saturday, February 02, 2013

The breakfast roundtable

By Dick Hirsch
This was at a breakfast meeting of the committee, held in a private alcove at a suburban chain restaurant well-known for its breakfast offerings. There are nine persons at the rectangular table, all upscale professionals. As we join the group the discussion has been temporarily halted to enable the waitress to take the orders. She is well-organized, proceeding down one side and up the other to facilitate the later service.

Attendee number one, seated near the entry door, orders the Spanish omelet with French fries and coffee. That evolved as a trend-setting decision. It was promptly duplicated by attendee number two, seated to his immediate right. As we will later observe, attendee number eight, seated across the table, thought that would be an appropriate way to start the day. He didn’t speak for fear of confusing the waitress, but when his turn came, he placed the same order.

Omelets prepared there tend to be large. They are made with three eggs, plus whatever other additions the diner might which to add. When they are delivered, steaming and swollen with broccoli, peppers or mushrooms, they are very imposing. Of all the omelets, the ones with cheese are probably most popular, available with cheddar, swiss or feta.
Attendees number five and seven ordered the cheese.

That left two orders of two fried eggs, sunny side up---attendees three and nine---and one order of two scrambled for number four. We have skipped over number six who had made a significant departure from the norm. He ordered an egg white omelet.

Obviously he wanted nothing to do with the yolk of a normal large chicken egg each of which contains 186 milligrams of cholesterol. He was asserting his position as a consumer who is a member of the group that has read the various stories published over the decades that high cholesterol might contribute to clogged arteries and the possibility of coronary disease.

The other eight were expressing a degree of independence. They were surely well aware of the various anti-egg warnings, but they apparently sided with the nutritionists and other medical professionals who insist eggs are a healthy food that has gotten an undeserved bad reputation.
That difference of opinion has been publicized for years, with various scientists choosing sides and debating the risks versus the benefits of the egg. Those who disparage the egg stress the evidence that links high cholesterol levels with heart disease. They advise complete abstention, or at least moderation. The scientific director of a recently announced study in Canada claimed that an extra large egg contains 237 milligrams of cholesterol, more than a burger with three slices of  cheese and four strips of bacon. 

Meanwhile, the American Egg Board, the industry group that has been leading a valiant defense for years, says its research has shown that eggs can be included in a healthy diet without increasing the risk of heart disease.

“Eggs can be part of healthy diet for healthy people,” is the familiar refrain of omelet eaters.

That is obviously the contention of those at that breakfast meeting. I have attended many meetings with that group and always been intrigued with their choices. I don’t usually pay close attention to what others are ordering, but their loyalty to the embattled egg seemed notable.

As an advocate of full disclosure, I have an admission that must be made: I was attendee number six, the contrarian, the person who ordered the egg white omelet. I have ordered many egg white omelets over the years and have never enjoyed one of them. There are many terms suitable for use in describing them, starting with bland, pallid and insipid. Yet they are  available on many menus and are being ordered by those who believe the egg white omelet will enhance their health and lengthen their lives. I was guilty of adopting that approach.

But I changed on that particular day, changed as I looked at all my colleagues, delighted with their servings of eggs, while I was dousing my egg white omelet with ketchup in the vain hope of infusing it with some flavor. It was a hopeless effort and it motivated me to change. I have quit the group that abstains and joined the other team. No, I won’t be aggressive, with a daily ration. Moderation will be my strategy. Have you ever considered how attractive it is to have a pair of poached eggs staring up at you from a bed of rye bread?