Posts tagged “gladwell”

Easy Listening

[Note: I was asked by a national print publication to join their crowded roster of design bloggers; Over a few months we worked together on my pitch and eventually I wrote and shared my first post. They were quite keen and ran me through all the technical and style guidelines for using their site. But then they asked me at the last minute to hold as they relaunched their blog. Then, silence. The discussion of my series fell down a hole. Given that almost a year has gone by, I’ve realized that it ain’t happening anytime soon. So here’s the piece!]

Rahul turned to Amanda, his eyes sparkling with excitement. “Hey, I saw a very strange dog today. You wouldn’t believe it!”
Amanda placed a finger in her novel and looked up. “What?”
“A strange dog. I saw a strange dog today.”
“Oh yeah-?” Amanda trailed off, her eyes dipping back to her book.

This is how we live today (I’m not saying it was always this way; did loquacious primitive Thag grunt enthusiastically while Klag scratched drawings upon the cave wall?). Sometimes we’re distracted, busy, tired, or just not that interested. Hearing these stories takes energy (isn’t that right, introverts?) or maybe we’d rather share our own story (isn’t that right, extroverts?). Even when we do engage in conversation, we’re often thinking about what we want to say next, and listening for those breathing cues that indicate it’s our turn to speak. Listening is a limited resource. No wonder we pay people to listen to us talk about ourselves!

And while companies acknowledge the value of listening to customers (what new feature, good or bad, isn’t announced without mealy-mouthed PR justification that “We listened to our customers and they told us-“), even at best that’s often just lip-service. As an individual skill that is crucial is so many business interactions, it’s woefully underdeveloped. While we’d all likely check off “good listener” on a self-assessment, it’s something we should probably get better at.

We don’t have the space (nor the qualifications) to help you get to a point where you care about what your client, customer, colleague or loved one has to say, so let’s just take that as read. But once you’re in the conversation, how do you stay in? One tactic involves your body.

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “act as if” from the worlds of life coaching, personal growth, or therapy (i.e., acting as if you aren’t anxious is a tool for dealing with anxiety). By the same token, if we act as if we are listening, we’ll find it easier to listen.

The body language of good listening

Not so much

In The Naked Face Malcolm Gladwell describes the work of psychologists who developed a coding system for facial expressions. As they identified the muscle groups and what different combinations signified, they realized that in moving those muscles, they were inducing the actual feelings. He writes

Emotion doesn’t just go from the inside out. It goes from the outside in-In the facial-feedback system, an expression you do not even know that you have can create an emotion you did not choose to feel.

It’s a likely extension of this finding to imagine bodily expressions that demonstrate emotion and intent similarly creating those matching feelings in us. Even if it isn’t true, these postures send strong signals to our interlocutor, further encouraging them to share with us.

One of my favorite ways to practice listening is via serendipitous encounters with loquacious taxi drivers, airplane neighbors, or social-cue-missing party chatters. Even if we can’t repair society’s listening inequity, we can use it to provide endless practice space.

For more about listening, you should check out

ChittahChattah Quickies

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Listening to customer feedback? Twenty-Five Years of Post-it Notes (Thx, @susandra) – In '77, 3M decided to test-market. It failed to ignite interest. “When we did the follow-up research, there just weren’t a lot of people saying this was a product they wanted.”
    "We knew the test markets failed, but we just kept saying, ‘Maybe it was us. Maybe we did something wrong. Because it couldn’t be the product—the product was great.”
    To see for themselves how people responded to Post-it Notes, 2 execs cold-called offices, giving away samples and showing people how to use 'em. The responses were more enthusiastic. “Those things really were like cocaine. You got them into somebody’s hands, and they couldn’t help but play around with them.”
    1 more test was in order. They got newspapers to run stories about it. They festooned stationery stores with banner displays and point-of-purchase materials. 1000s of samples were sent to office managers, purchasing agents, lawyers, etc. People demonstrated it to potential customers. It was a huge success, and 3M decided to launch Post-Its.
  • Listening to customer feedback? Peter Arnell Explains Failed Tropicana Package Design – Big outcry over the Tropicana packaging design (which this suggests was NOT tested but that's hard to believe) led to a return to the previous packaging.
  • Listening to customer feedback? Malcolm Gladwell on the Aeron chair – The Aeron chair was originally despised and deemed ugly. It didn’t catch on for 2 years, and then it quickly became the most popular chair. Everyone came to love it. Gladwell concludes that people find responses about some topics extremely difficult to articulate. While they may think they dislike something (like the Aeron chair), in their hearts they may actually like it. There is a disconnect that causes people to express dislike in their heads while they actually like it in their hearts (and vice versa).
  • Listening to customer feedback? Hate Facebook's new look? You'll like it soon enough. – Slate advances the point that people react to change negatively but eventually get used to the change and make it work.
  • Listening to customer feedback? Problems With NBC’s ‘Parks & Recreation’ – When do you listen to negative feedback and when do you follow your vision? I think there's an important middle-ground that is often ignored: understanding what lies beneath that feedback and choosing carefully if and how to respond to it, or how to create supporting activities that help get over the barriers that the rejection points to

I’m not saying the book was entirely my idea or anything…

This review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (an exploration of what causes people to be successful; get a taste from this recent New Yorker piece) reminded me of a long-ago correspondence I had with Mr. Gladwell.

Date: 6/16/01
From: Steve Portigal (steve.portigal@—–)
To: Malcolm Gladwell (malcolm@—-)

I just thought I’d get the “I’m a fan!” thing out of the way up front…

[rambling enthusiastic feedback, introduction, etc. snipped]

Date: 6/18/01
From: Malcolm Gladwell (malcolm@—-)
To: Steve Portigal (steve.portigal@—–)

hi there. thanks for the sweet email. i’m delighted you find my stories interesting. and i love the auto seat anectode (which i have already shared with my editor). your job sounds very cool. if you ever run across what seems to be a cool case study, do let me know. cheers, mtg

Date: 8/28/01
From: Steve Portigal (steve.portigal@—–)
To: Malcolm Gladwell (malcolm@—-)

I don’t know I’ve got a case study, but a couple of ideas that seem (to me) deserving of your insight.

Dynasties – how the hell in the US can the son of a president grow up to be president? And his brother is the governor of a state? I mean, there’s something very obvious about parents passing opportunities and values onto their children but is it more than that? What about the social structures we’ve erected that suggest that anyone can be anything they want? Is there something about biology here?

Prodigies – the sports issue of the New Yorker had a thing about Tiger Woods (this was months ago) that kind of had me scratching my head – by some random set of circumstances he picked up a club at a young age, and was good at it. His parents noticed this (another perhaps rare condition) and encouraged it (yet another one), and voila.

How many prodigies are there that never encounter a violin or whatever? Are they born, or made?

Date: 8/30/01
From: Malcolm Gladwell (malcolm@—-)
To: Steve Portigal (steve.portigal@—–)

hi there. thanks for the story ideas.


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