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The Forgotten Art of Listening

Ed Brodow

I was having lunch at a bistro in St. Paul de Vence, a picturesque hill town in the south of France. In my fractured French, I tried to order a bottle of beer.

"Je voudrais une bouteille de biere, sil vous plait." I would like a bottle of beer, I told the waitress.

"In a can," she replied. "Non," said I, "En bouteille!" In a bottle. With her hands on her hips and a sneer on her face, she repeated, "In a can!"

Now I was really getting mad. "Not in a can," I insisted. "In a bottle. En bouteille. EN BOUTEILLE!"

She threw her hands up in despair. "Monsieur, IN A CAN!"

"All right," I said. "Have it your way. Give it to me in a can. Anything. Just give me a beer!"

She stormed off and returned with a bottle of Heineken. Heineken, when you say it in French, loses the "H" and sounds like, "In a can." I practically fell off my chair, I was laughing so hard. She thought I was nuts.

The point of the story is exactly what I stress in my negotiation presentations. We hear mostly what we want to hear, not what the other person is trying to communicate to us. Many conflicts can be resolved easily if we learn how to listen.

The Catch

The catch is that listening is the forgotten art. We are so busy making sure that people hear what we have to say that we forget to listen.

The first indication I had that my education had a hole in it occurred in the Marine Corps. A kindly colonel gave me a bit of advice. "Lieutenant," he said, "you need to learn how to listen." "What?" I replied. Obviously it was going to take more than his counsel to get the point across.

Luckily for me, my next escapade was tailor made. Dun & Bradstreet hired me as a salesman in an enterprise based upon a new technology called data processing. D&B had just computerized its entire data base of credit information on millions of companies and was now selling information for marketing purposes.

For example, if your company sold ice to Eskimos, D&B could give you a printout of all the Eskimo companies in your market area, with pertinent information such as the number of Eskimos in each company and the names of key decision-making Eskimos. This was cutting-edge stuff back in 1968.

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