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.