The Guys Who Button the Top Button

Back in May my wife and I purchased an elliptical exercise machine. The first one had to be replaced, and the second one has needed a service call, too.

Diagnosing problems on these ellipticals is more art than science; and along the way, I have learned more about ellipticals than I expected.

While the service technician was at our home he needed a second pair hands for part of the job. As I worked with him he explained how companies make trouble for themselves by using inexpensive parts in critical areas. One major company that makes lawnmowers, he observed, continually produces machines that need major repairs that could be avoided by an inexpensive change in design.

I asked if the company ever spoke to field technicians. I added that good business would dictate finding a way to tap into the knowledge of service technicians in the field. “Perhaps,” I mused, “a good practice might be flying some of you out to their headquarters and having their engineers engage you in a dialogue.”

“The guys who button the top button on their shirt, don’t talk to the people who don’t,” he replied.

What he was describing is an epidemic problem, and the problem is not just limited to “people who button the top button.” We all can benefit by increasing our listening skills. Consider these two scenarios.

Imagine your child comes home from school and her grades are lower than you expected. Are you sincerely open to exploring the situation in a conversation? Or, does your head begin to fill with questions and doubts? What is wrong with my daughter? Where did I go wrong? Am I expecting too much? How am I going to fix this?

Imagine you’re at work, sitting at a meeting. You’re pretty confident you understand the “preferred solution” to an item on the agenda. Before you speak, to your surprise, a colleague advocates a completely different solution. While he speaks, does your head filled with counter arguments. How am I going to convince others that he is wrong? Who is likely to endorse his idea? Who will be on my side?

When our head fills with our thinking we’re not listening. Why don’t we listen? Usually, when I’m not listening, it is because my thinking has convinced me that the situation is very important and that I understand the correct solution. When I’m not listening, I lack humility and respect for others. Worse, I am completely unaware that I am being arrogant or disrespectful.

And yet, surely, a child has something important to contribute to parents’ understanding of her academic performance and the perspectives of colleagues bring to light alternative solutions. Surely, in both scenarios, listening respectfully with full attention will contribute to, not impede, understanding and joint action.

When faced with a problem, what I do next will depend entirely upon the quality of my thinking. And the quality of my thinking will depend completely on my willingness to listen to voices other than my own. To be sure, those other voices include my own internal Wisdom. But the ability to hear my own internal Wisdom is directly proportional to my capacity to be internally still. And when I am internally still, I not only can listen to others, I value listening to others.

In her book, More Time to Think, Nancy Kline observes the conditions that promote good listening. She advises us to regard the other person “as [our] thinking Equal.” In that light, “regardless of any power differential between you, they will think better around you than if you see yourself as better than (or less than) they are.”

Then she goes on to write about the power of respect:

Love is not usually the way we describe the essence of professional relationships. But surely if love is anything, it is unfettered respect for things wondrous and fecund, things like the human mind and the human life it expresses. Love is what makes Attention catalytic.

Yes, catalytic. Our respect, our attention, our love, helps to ignite new understandings. And just as in chemical reactions, in human reactions a relatively small amount of the catalyst is required.

Think of a time when someone attentively listened to you, taking in what you were saying and understanding your thinking. Even if the other person said not a word, didn’t their loving attention help you achieve a new perspective? No doubt, their humble, respectful attention made all the difference by creating a safe space for you to access your own Wisdom.

In many organizations, human intelligence is not being tapped because we don’t listen.

In centrally planned economies, dispersed human intelligence is untapped because the authorities don’t listen. Even if a bureaucrat or politician wanted to listen, the absence of a market mechanism makes listening impossible.

In our own personal lives, how often do we fail to listen to our own internal Wisdom or to our loved ones?

Of course, listening has everything to do with a change of heart and little to do with a change in behavior. Until we are ready to profoundly respect others, that change of heart is unlikely to occur. Until we humbly acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, that change of heart is unlikely to occur. Without a change of heart, we are one of the guys whose top button is buttoned.

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