I was eating dinner last night in Wisconsin with a wonderfully warm and straight-forward group of people who typify to me the hard-working owners of small town businesses.
They were discussing my new book and why I had written it when I recklessly mentioned that I was looking for contributions to augment the examples I had collected.
Without missing a beat, the young man on my right asked me, with a wicked grin, "How do you get someone to listen to you?"
It didn’t help that the entire group chuckled and his wife added, "He works for his father." She indicated the man sitting across the table from me.
To use a sailing metaphor, I had been running happily before the wind and I was about to fetch up on some sharp rocks in shoal water. I came about smartly and started beating my way clear of the rocks without losing way.
I smiled indulgently at him and told him it’s all a matter of perception.
As he looked at me quizzically, I launched into the story of my presentation to Melpar some years ago when a top salesman and myself, the engineer, went to Melpar to discuss a pending contract. He gave an excellent presentation and so did I, but we received strange signals from our audience.
When the salesman pitched return on investment, the customer team would look to me for confirmation. When I gave them the technical pitch, they tried to get corroboration from the salesman. They seemed to be struggling with our presentation.
By the time we went for lunch, the customer team leader had had enough. He said, "Which one of you is the engineer and which is the salesman?" (At that time, I was a vest-wearing dandy. The salesman looked like an unmade bed and wore a pocket protector.)
We laughed and carefully explained who we were again. At that point, everything fell into place for them and we wrapped up our discussion successfully in less than an hour.
Until then, the customer could not accept technical input from a slick-looking dude or sales input from someone wearing a pocket protector and a wrinkled shirt. It was like they just could not accept the data because it was coming from an inappropriate source.
As the group at the dinner table nodded in agreement, I related another example: A woman I worked with made an excellent presentation to senior management, only to have the big boss turn to a junior male employee for confirmation. He would not accept meaningful input from a woman.
This triggered a number of similar stories from the women at the table, and we were off and running with a long discussion about the inability of some people to accept input from others..
I wound up making the point that it isn’t always enough to make intelligent suggestions. One has to break through the barriers that prevent the other person from listening to you.
I couldn’t address the young man’s real question, which was how does he get his father to listen to him, but I hope I gave both father and son enough information so they might begin discussing the issue together.
I know I have just scratched the surface of this issue. If there is interest, I will suggest some ways you can break through some unconscious barriers of prejudice.