Saturday, September 27, 2008

What's Good, What's Bad, and What's (Relatively) Original

** Before I start this entry, I just want to announce to friends, neighbors, and the Venn Diagram overlap thereof that I am the proud new owner of a TV connection (local channels only, but still a huge improvement) and a real, live Internet connection in the house. So if you sent me a Yahoo e-mail (blocked from work) in the past many weeks, I am just going to see it now when I dig out from under the rubble of advertisements about penny Internet stocks and improved, uh...performance.**

The other day, I was accused of using the code words "cool," "sweet" and "uh-huh" as better-sounding proxies for "I'm not listening to you."

I strongly disagreed -- first of all, I was listening to everything being said, and second of all, it made me wonder just how else is someone supposed to convey the fact that they're listening? I meant that not as a rhetorical question or to be a contrarian wise-ass, but in a very sincere and plaintive way -- when I'm listening to something that's generally interesting but not given to two-way interaction, how better to acknowledge during the pauses than to just say things like "sweet," "cool" and "uh-huh"? (I still don't know, by the way, and would welcome any reader input here).

Even better, though, it brought back to mind a blog topic that I introduced a while back but still believe merits further debate/discussion -- good talk v. bad talk.

I don't recommend you do this, but I've actually taken the time to read The Seven Highly Effective Ways to Influence Emotionally Intelligent People from Venus and Mars who Move Cheese in One Minute While Taking the Path Less Traveled and Displaying the Effective Traits of Leadership.

Guess what every one of those books is chomping at the bit to tell you?

To be more effective, to be a better leader/husband/brother/co-worker/ parishioner/ neighbor/boss etc. you need to be a better listener.

Well, that's generally good advice, but it's entirely built upon a premise that I'm not sure I buy -- anytime someone speaks, all those around have some immediate obligation to stop whatever they're doing, fully engage the speaker, and listen.

I respectfully beg to differ.

Personally, I find it very hard -- painful, even -- to listen to those who fail to either enunciate or turn up the volume loud enough so I don't have to strain myself to hear or understand them. At some point, I just stop.

And as much as I'm engaged -- even enthralled -- by stories that involve the interpersonal humor all around us in everyday life, or by observations that start with "Did you ever notice..." I can't pretend to care about someone used to love Skittles but now never eats them, or about how their cat scratched them last night at 2, and then they woke up, but then couldn't go back to sleep until 3, and then the cat scratched them again, so they went right back to bed at four, but when the cat scratched them at 5, they were like, "What the heck?"

My workplace is an eclectic mix of people who are there to fulfill demanding, full-time jobs for senior officers alongside those in a Limited Duty (LIMDU)-status holding tank, whose purpose is to watch the paint dry while they're being out-processed, usually for medical reasons. As you might be able to guess, I fall under the former category, so if I have any prayer of leaving my office before 7 p.m., I don't have time to listen to the eighth re-hashing of your 'escape from Foxwoods' story. So if you start to tell it, I'm just going to look back at my monitor, get back to my job, and remind you that lunchtime or PT would be great for that, but please, not now.

So what amazes me about all these pop psychology and self-help bestsellers is that they're full of advice about how we need to be better listeners, but I've yet to encounter a one that advises readers to become better talkers.

So what is good talk?

There's no single answer. It's way too dependent on the audience and the given set of circumstances, but you could probably just summarize it like this: Might it interest the audience at hand? If it does, it's probably good talk. If it doesn't, it's probably bad talk.

As a little experiment in practicality, think about which of your immediate co-workers are the most-liked and best-respected. Now think about the least-liked and worst-respected. The next time you're in the faculty lounge, wardroom, company cafeteria, or whatever your equivalent break space, listen to what comes out of their mouths. I can almost guarantee you that the most-liked and most-influential colleagues engage primarily in good talk, while those on the wrong side of the coin are quick to engage in bad talk.

** Please note: 'Good' and 'Bad' talking has almost no correlation to how much someone is saying. It has much more to do with the way an audience receives it, and how a speaker reacts to that cueing.

So why did I title this entry the way I did?

If you go back through old entries on this blog, you'll find a few themes running through them:

America is a great, though imperfect, nation.

Lowell, though also far from perfect, is a great and still-underrated city that is on the up-and-up in most ways imaginable.

It's way harder to drive the bus than to sit in the back and throw spitballs towards the front.

Don't go through life with a scorecard. Not everyone's out to get you. Mostly, they don't care.

People aren't all good or all bad. Pattern analysis will reveal their character, good and bad.

Stop fighting for the best parking spots, and enjoy the breeze on a nice September day.

Those are all wonderful thoughts, but guess what?

Someone, somewhere, has already said them all. This is why "Good and Bad Talk" really stands out for me. I don't personally claim it at all. In fact, the "Matt" and "Nick" who comment here from time to time are at least as responsible for framing the idea as I am. But that's not the point -- this isn't about ownership. Besides, I'm sure that someone, somewhere, has written about this exact same issue, though they may have couched it in somewhat different terms.

The part that blows my mind is just that this basic, simple idea isn't more widespread in things like Leadership Seminars and the shelves of your local bookstore. Like I just said, I don't claim pure originality here, I just claim amazement at not having seen it before outside of maybe a single George Carlin routine where he makes fun of couples who talk about their vacations.

Here's how you can do your part: The next time you're at some corporate retreat where some guru with a European goatee and chic glasses tells your management about the value of good listening, pipe up and counter with the need to tell people to be better talkers.

And the next time someone calls you to tell you that they saw a great jacket at the mall, but weren't sure about the price tag, and then saw that it was slightly marked down and just decided to say what the heck and go for it, tell them to nip it in the bud -- that's bad talk.

I'm always half-amazed and fully-flattered when I get an e-mail from completely out of the blue from someone I haven't spoken with in months, and they mention that they read The New Englander and they dig it. As I'm sure they've noticed, I've cut back on my operational tempo a bit (Internet limitations and a new set of time constraints) but have still tried to average a couple of meaningful, thoughtful entries each week.

Among all these typed words, if I had to pick any single idea, entry, or thought that I would in turn encourage people to pass on, this is it, right here -- differentiating good talk from bad talk.

Know the difference, and spread the word -- but only to those who would appreciate your words, and listen.


Matt said...

I know I frequently flatter your posts, but this one is truly pure gold. Because it's something I've been thinking about for the past week or so.

It started with the question: how do you get someone to open up to you? All these books say to be a good listener, but if you're not asking the right questions or getting people to talk about interesting shit, all people do is talk about their cats, their jobs, or the parking situation at Whole Foods. So how do you get people to talk about interesting stuff?

It's certainly not by listening. Because listening is PASSIVE. It doesn't change a thing. So I started thinking about my Dad. He's a guy who has an amazing ability to get people to open up to him; one of my mom's friends comes over the house just to talk to him about her life.

So I started listening to how he did it. And guess what? He NEVER ASKS A SINGLE QUESTION. What he does is share personal, interesting stories about his own life until the other person feels comfortable opening up to him. They talk, then he comes back with an observation from his own life. He's listening, sure, but he's CREATING A DIALOGUE. And by creating this dialogue, it's what Carnegie et. al. say is the benefit of being a listener: people think you care more about them, are sensitive, etc. But I would argue there's no such thing as "good listening" -- it's actually creating a mutual dialogue through "good talk."

The New Englander said...


Great points.

The New Englander said...


Great points. Because I know your dad and know the openness that you describe, everything you wrote here rang true for's not merely listening, but it's a much more active, involved back-and-forth that puts another person at ease, bridges the gap between two people, and ultimately helps create a meaningful bond (as in the case of the woman who comes over to rap).

I like your mention of listening being, at its core, passive. It's funny, if you think about it, to a completely tone-deaf person, a LAMPPOST could be a good listener -- it'll let you unload, it won't talk back, and it won't ever question you or judge you when you try to convince it how much your boss has wronged you.

Going back through the entries, by the way, I noticed one other idea I haven't seen elsewhere -- that when friends travel far to come see you, it's you (the host) who should be doing the thanking, not the other way around. The visitor has expended time and treasure while the host has typically done little by comparison. The corollary, of course, is the extreme vacuousness of the "dude, you can totally crash on my couch anytime" offers from your friends from Winnipeg to Tuscaloosa.

I'm starting to think more and more about how my dream would be to become a funnier and slightly less nerdy/scientific Malcolm Gladwell or Nicholas Nassim Taleb. For now, this has been such a great forum for kicking around these ideas in an unpolished format...thanks for posting, I love this stuff...


Chris said...

GP - I think you should develop this "Good vs. Bad" theme into a compact self-help blockbuster . . . . you may lack the Ph.D, but you DO have thousands of hours of experience briefing and being briefed as well as some highly-developed insights on the subject . . . . that makes you an expert in communication . . . . you could even publish it anonymously as a "successful military leader" (which you are) just like this blog . . . if you're inclined to so such a thing . . .

The New Englander said...


Thanks for the encouragement, mate. Once I get off active duty in spring 2010, I am going to start shopping around some column ideas and starting local...I am hoping to find a full-time civilian or Guard job that allows enough time to write. I have absolutely no idea what it would be like to work an actual 40-hour week, but if there's really such a thing out there, I'd love to try it, and use the available extra time to just focus on writing..

stay militant,

Matt said...

Amazing you should mention Taleb -- I just read FOOLED BY RANDOMNESS. It is truly, truly phenomenal. Have you read Black Swan?

The New Englander said...


Haven't read The Black Swan yet, but I just did Fooled by Randomness a few times over in the last couple months...definitely a great read -- Taleb is a wiseass for sure, but he's got a great voice, he's fun to read, and he makes a lot of great points...and of course, without using the word "blurk" he points out the blurkiness of statements like, "The market was reacting to the lack of a Fed rate cut today.."

Speaking of books that sort of fall in this nebulous genre of non-fiction about cool ideas and their applications, I really loved The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

The more I think about it, freelance writing seems like an awesome way to go, not to rely on as a primary source of income, but as a really neat hobby that might or might not go anywhere beyond that.

Kind of like stock trading.

That is, unless you can actually BE Taleb, in which case you're a stock trading, book writing badass dude.