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Temba, His Arms Wide

When time is running short and they need an answer, the lawyers in my office will caution me against responding to their inquiries with either a movie quote or a Seinfeld reference. “Focus,” they’ll tell me. “Just answer the question.” Most of the time I’ll comply.

can telephonesI know that when those discussions conclude, they walk away pleased that they were able to pare down a longer conversation to its essence. To be sure, those conversations yielded the answer – the “how,” or the “what,” but not the “why.” The “why” was filtered out by their instruction.

I am reminded of this episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered an alien race, the Tamarians, which communicated solely through metaphor. Thoughts were not conveyed by sentences built from words, but rather through ideas constructed from what were, to the Tamarians, universal cultural touchstones.

What we might describe in a paragraph, they would convey as “Temba, his arms wide” referencing the folklore of their race. Ignorance of the story behind the metaphor, however, rendered the Tamarian language indecipherable.

But what of a listener well versed in both languages? No doubt it would be the Tamarian conversation that conveyed a broader understanding of the speaker’s full experience. That’s because the story underlying the simple phrase, “Temba, his arms wide,” contains images and background, as well as an emotional feel and richness that would invariably be sacrificed by our penchant for pruning a discussion to its core.

Those of us in professional services, operating under the misguided notion that we’re selling time deprive ourselves of our clients’ stories in the name of efficiency. More importantly, our clients deprive us of their stories in fear of the charges a longer conversation would bring. The end result, compelled by both sides of the time-is-money fallacy, is a ceiling placed on the fullness and benefits of a relationship.

A common piece of advice – you can read it in just about every how-to book on sales, management, and customer service – is to listen more. “Start listening more than you talk” is the common refrain…sometimes with percentages. To me, however, the “start listening” mantra means nothing if one is still measuring productivity and profit by minutes sold.

We “spend” time and we bill it. Time is measured and accounted for. And because of that, we in the service business are taught to conserve time wherever possible. The cost (and there is always a cost) is in our clients’ stories that lay unrecounted on the cutting room floor.

So I’m thinking that perhaps, just maybe, efficiency is overrated.