A Thousand Words is Worth a Picture: Relearning What We Already Know, We Need to Listen When We LIsten

There is much merit in the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Take this picture for instance.In case you don’t know this is Mt. Ranier in Washington. This particular shot was taken with my Palm Treo from the window seat during a flight I was taking from Seattle to Fort Worth two summers ago. I think it is pretty great given no time for set up and it sure does a much better job of showing the magnificence of this peak than if I was to tell you how “really big” it is.

 Sometimes though you really do have to hear the story to get the picture.

We go to the gym to stay in shape, we hire a management coach to stay in shape, we go to church on Sunday to stay in shape. Repetition seems to be a fundamental practice for those who would stay sharp, whether it be in body, mind or spirit. And so it goes with those of us who create these periodic blog posts.So again it is time to repeat something we have heard countless times before.

In his March 25th post in All Things Workplace this year Steve Roesler does a great job of outlining the lesson I have mind for us to review today. In his words,

“I’ve coached executives and conducted workshops on all aspects of presentations for many years. One of the liveliest parts of the discussion emerges when I introduce the fact that influential presentations require at least as much time listening to the audience as speaking to them. For many, that’s counter-intuitive to the common notion of influence.”

Listening…there it is again…whether we are in the midst of a presentation or a one one one conversation, how many times have you heard said that listening is more important than speaking, especially when it comes to gaining respect or establishing influence? If you’ve heard it once I bet you’ve heard it a thousand times…and still it bears repeating.

So now that story I promised…


Some thirty years back I held a real job in a real company, actually a Fortune 50 company in the petroleum industry to be as exact as I need for my purposes here. One of my favorite assignments during this period of my career involved a two year stay on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in a large refinery.

On one particular morning my manager showed up at my office early asking of I had time for a special assignment. He had in mind for me to do a comparative analysis of the healthcare plan we offered our employees and one offered by a local chemical company. The assignment seemed pretty straight forward so I took it on and within a short time was waist deep in charts and tables.

What I noticed fairly quickly was that on virtually every feature the plan offered by my employer was equal to or superior to the plan I had been asked to analyze comparatively. After about an hour I sat back and pondered the assignment for a few moments and just as I concluded it was a waste of time I headed upstairs to see my manager. He was someone I respected a great deal and if he had asked me to do this he had a good reason; I needed to know what that was before proceeding.

When I asked my manager how it was that he came to make the request of me to do the analysis the picture began to take shape. Late in the afternoon the day before one of the more vocal plant workers, a man who seemed to have a certain following, had stopped in to see my manager. He spent about half an hour complaining to my manager about how much better the medical plan offered by “so and so company” was and wondering aloud why we couldn’t get a better plan, to the point where my manager finally said he would arrange for an analysis and see what might be done.

I told my manager of my preliminary findings and he said maybe I should continue my analysis because the company was committed to doing whatever could be done within reason to keep the plant employees from thinking they needed union representation. Now I grew suspicious.

An interesting feature of this particular refinery was the fact that it was not unionized, like virtually all other refineries in the United States and the company management took great pains to make sure that was the way things remained.

I asked my manager if he minded whether I arranged a visit with the employee who had stopped by to see him and he said that of I thought it would help I could go ahead. Later that day I had the employee stop by and we began talking about his issues, and of course all the other employees who agreed with him. Within a short period of time listening to him I could not get a clear understanding of the problem, just the vague sense that something more was going on than the simple complaint. Finally I just said to him point blank that of he could not be more specific it would not be possible for me to determine whether we should or shouldn’t consider a different medical plan and I made it clear that I wanted to help if at all possible. The employee was silent for a few moments and then said that the employees at the other plant had this plastic membership card they could show at the doctor’s office or drug store and that was all they had to do to make a claim for coverage. Our plan required the employees to complete a form, attach a receipt, mail it in and wait for reimbursement. So that was it; that was what all the fuss was about, the claims process? Well, that was almost all of it!

We talked for a while longer and it became apparent that there was a cultural factor involved. This was some years back and this was a culture where the moms in a family stayed home to raise the children and take care of the family business. Virtually all the refinery employees then were male and most worked rotating shifts so they were only on a 9-5 schedule once out of every three weeks and their wives handled the household affairs. Many of women at home didn’t understand the claims forms and since the men were used to them handling everything they were embarrassed by giving them something that was hard to understand. So this was the real problem, we had placed our male employees in a position where they were letting their spouses down and those very same spouses talked with other women who’s husbands worked at the chemical plant with the plastic card and…you get the picture. This was an emotional issue not rational but if you were not listening you would never have heard it.

We got it all worked out. I offered to set up classes for or take phone calls from the wives to help them understand the claims process. I also promised to work with our health plan administrator to simplify the claims process. The issue of considering another plan never came up again while I was there and not since as far as I know. My manager was stunned,; he realized that he was so tuned to listening for anything that might lead to unionization that he could not have heard the employee’s real request no matter how many times they talked. I was new so my biases had yet to be established.

So there’s your 1000+ words, did you get the picture?



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