• Curt Mercadante

Instead of trying to "convince and convert"... just try listening

"Silver-tongued bastard."

Not certain of the meaning of that "insult", I made a mental note to look up the meaning later. It was directed at me for being a public relationships representative of an energy company that was attempting to build a natural gas-fired "peaker" plan in the Chicago suburbs.

You can listen to the podcast version of this post below or on Apple or Spotify.

I was in my mid-20s, working for a Chicago PR firm. The electricity grid in Illinois was so-so, and our client was building these "peaker" plants, which could be fired up relatively quickly when electricity demand hit its peak, in order to provide stability to the grid.

Most people understood the need for the plants, but nobody (understandably) wanted them in their backyard.

"Nobody" included the angry home developer who just called me a "silver tongued bastard."

This developer's company was planning a new subdivision not far from where the power plant was to be built. He was worried the plant would shatter the value of his newly-built homes.

As I sat across the table from him, it certainly wasn't easy to listen to his angry complaints. In my folder was my arsenal of talking points, ready to be unleashed at a moment's notice to counteract his talking points (some of which were untrue, and furnished by a local opposition group.)

My folder, however, remained closed. My mouth remained closed.

What remained open? My ears and my notebook, as I took notes of all his concerns.

The more I listened, the more he spoke. The more he spoke, the less agitated he became as his energy dissipated and he began to realize I didn't come to the meeting for an argument.

Twenty-five hundred (ish) years ago, Lao-Tzu wrote in the ancient text of the Tao Te Ching:

"For every force there is a counterforce. Violence, even well intentioned, always rebounds upon oneself."

If I had met this person's angry talking points with my angry talking points, I would've simply been doubling the "violence" and preventing us from entering a climate of collaboration.

So my talking points remained in my folder. When he was done with his list of concerns and complaints, I asked, "Are there any other concerns you have about the power plant?"

He listed some more.

We ended the meeting with a promise by me that I would come back with answers to his questions, and to try to alleviate as many of his concerns as possible.

That meeting was followed up with listening sessions and open houses in the community in which we didn't push, but rather listened.

In my mid-20s, with a bit of a hot temper, the credit for our actions certainly cannot go to me alone. When the developer came into the meeting looking for a fight, it certainly was difficult to keep my blood cool, and to prevent myself from reacting to his words.

But the aggressive listening strategy was taught to me by the president and founder of the PR firm, the late, great Lou Williams. He truly believed in the power of listening, and had built one of the few PR firms with an in-house research department.

Today, we are told by many sales gurus that the goal should be to "convince and convert"; to push people down the funnel; to aggressively "overcome objections."

In my humble opinion, much of this gives the sales profession a bad name, and it can also lead to whole lot of remorse buyers.

When it comes to sales or conflict resolutions or even addressing the seemingly endless array of divisive social and political issues that face us right now -- perhaps we would all do better to listen instead of trying to convince and convert.

People love to be heard. People love to talk about themselves.

And when people come to a meeting ready for a fight, and you listen instead, it's not only disarming, it helps you get to a place where you can begin to have a true discussion.

We teach our clients to resist looking at their potential clients as "sales calls" and instead call them "interview calls." Instead of entering those calls looking to "pitch" or convince and convert -- they enter those calls with their ears and notebooks open, ready to listen and take notes.

People love to be heard.

And, by the way, letting your potential clients be heard is just good business. When you shut your mouth and open your ears, you may just find that they're providing you the roadmap to what it will take for them to become your client.

Sales. Conflict resolution. Contentious political discussions at Thanksgiving Dinner.

Perhaps instead of trying to convince and convert...

We might try listening.

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