Listening: Senator, Shut Up!

By Barry Maher

There’s a story about me that’s been reported in a couple of national publications. I’ve never confirmed it and I’m not going to now, but I am going to repeat it because it illustrates perfectly a point I want to make.

I was working with a client—a well known and powerful senator—on his personal selling skills. As Selling Power magazine reported the story:

On Maher’s second day in Washington, he set up a roleplay for the senator who quickly turned it into a filibuster.

“Senator,’ Maher allegedly broke in, “shut up!”

Stunned, the senator did just that—for a moment anyway. But every time he tried to speak, Maher interrupted, talking over him, refusing to let him squeeze in a syllable. When Maher started shaking a figure in the man’s face and lecturing, the senator reached the point of apoplexy. That’s when Maher flipped on the video recorder and played a recording of the senator doing the exact same thing the day before—to another legislator, a less powerful man—but one whose vote the senator needed.

I work with some of the most intelligent people in the country. And I respect all my clients. But if I had done something like this, it would have been because sometimes you simply have to demonstrate to someone how his behavior makes the person he’s hoping to persuade, feel.

Most salespeople realize that the days are long gone when they can ram a product down the customer’s throat and choke off his or her objections. The rest of us need to realize it as well. Particularly those of us in management. Because though we never try to do it with superiors and seldom try it with peers, too many of us are still in a cram and ram mode when it comes to our subordinates. Which doesn’t tend to generate wholehearted, enthusiastic support.

A few years back, Psychology Today reported a study of top executives, comparing those who had gotten “de-railed” in their careers with those who keep moving on up to senior management. The most common problem among the “de-railed?” Insensitivity to others: an intimidating, bullying, abrasive style. Which means a lack of empathy, an inability to look inside themselves and find a piece of themselves that’s very much like whomever they’re dealing with.

You may think of yourself as the stereotypical tough boss with a heart of gold, “crusty but benign,” like Lou Grant from the old Mary Tyler Moore show and so many other TV and movie bosses. Those who work from you may not be getting the same picture.

Even many of us who’d never cram and ram are frequently guilty of not listening. Not observing. Once again, this is an especially serious problem in management. There’s always a tendency for managers to talk too much and listen too little, to ramble on and waste our people’s time.

People with less power have to act interested in what we say. So we start believing we’re fascinating, and we talk too damn much. We know we should spend more time listening, but we seldom do.

If power corrupts, the first thing it corrupts is the little voice in our heads that tells us when to shut up.

        Tip: Shut up.

© Copyright 2012, 2013 Barry Maher & Associates, San Diego, California; Las Vegas, Nevada

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