As she sat there explaining her problem, he smiled a determined smile – an anxious smile. She could see he had stopped listening and he was simply ready to pounce. He had the solution to fix her problem. Sadly, he had no idea what her problem was.
The Typical Pattern
I have a friend who really struggled with his boss. The boss was a great guy, but he just didn’t listen.
To be clear, the boss was a great hearer. He heard really well. He heard patiently. He heard at great length. He sat quietly as the words flowed into his ears, so that he could use those words to explain why my friend was wrong. He would very kindly and matter-of-factly use the words to show him the error of his ways, often providing solutions that in no way matched the problems he was having.
This is not uncommon. Overwhelmingly we don’t listen, we talk. We don’t ask questions to understand; we ask questions to find the weak point in the other person’s argument so we can promote our ideas. Then, because we don’t truly understand the problem, we provide inadequate or wildly unfit solutions. This makes me think about sales.
A Maligned Profession
When someone says “salesperson” people often get a negative connotation. They think sleazy used-car salesman or greedy or focused solely on personal gain.
That can be true, in the same way that you can have a doctor solely focused on personal gain or even a preacher solely focused on personal gain. But just like a good doctor or a good pastor will be focused on helping people, so will a good salesperson. In fact, her income pretty much depends on it.
A good salesperson understands that shoving someone into a situation he doesn’t want won’t always work. In fact, it can leave a bad impression and negative reviews can spread quickly.
Instead, a good salesperson understands that she has something of value. She knows why it is of value. She finds out what her customer needs. She finds out where he is experiencing problems. She finds out if her products can help, and then demonstrates how her products can improve her customer’s life. And if it can’t, she points him in the direction of the competitor’s product that can.
A Problem and Solution
Which is the opposite of the struggle we often find ourselves in: we provide a solution and someone rejects it wholeheartedly. Why? Because we didn’t try to solve the problem. We often didn’t ask. We simply tried to provide our solutions without taking the time to understand the true need: not the one we see on the surface, but the one below we have to dig for.
As I talk about in my book, 7 Steps to Better Relationships, we must focus on listening, not solving. We must dig deep. We must go farther than just what we hear on the surface. Just like in our own lives, what others show on the surface is often not how they truly feel deep down. We have to remember that when we talk to others.
Sure, Sally is saying she’s unhappy with her relationship, but what drives that? We may find it’s not her relationship but a deep-seated struggle with her own feeling of self worth. Yes, Tom may hate his job, but perhaps it’s because he feels no control over his life and career. Without listening, how in the world would we be able to understand that?
And it’s true that Jada can be angry and defensive, but maybe she’s always had her hopes and dreams crushed by people that were supposed to love her. Maybe this makes her afraid to let any weakness peek through. If we take the time to get beyond her reaction and listen to the person underneath, we might be able to help her turn her whole negative perspective upside down.
All this reminds me a bit of this cartoon:
It seems quite obvious in this example that it wouldn’t have taken much time to understand the customer need in this situation, but how often do we assume? How often do we think we know better? How often do we provide solutions without ever listening or hearing the problem?
Maybe today is a good day to listen. Maybe today is a good day to focus more on hearing what people are truly saying than on providing quick solutions. Maybe today is a good day to make a difference.
Because the problem with a quick solution is that it doesn’t address the real problem: the need we all have to truly be heard. If you can fulfill that need, then you have provided a real solution.