Back to the Future

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I found this amazing insight on ethics and interpersonal relationships from the Talmud written more than 1,900 years ago.

A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than him in wisdom or in  years; he does not interrupt the words of his fellow; he does not rush to answer;        he asks what is relevant to the subject matter and replies to the point; he speaks of first things first and of last things last; concerning that which he has not heard,         he says, “I have not heard,” and he acknowledges the truth.

When I first read this, I thought whoever wrote it must have been a salesman or a great business coach. This short paragraph summarized the most important components of building business relationships. The first phrase “A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than him in wisdom or in years” is more about wisdom than age. Think about it. If you are meeting with potential referrers or prospective customers, who have been working in their business for many years, they are going to know more about their business than you.

Many veteran business owners and managers are keepers of the oral history of their business and have valuable information about their industry or profession. Don’t dismiss these business veterans as dinosaurs. You and I have plenty to learn from these folks. They are wiser in many ways. And, in order to take advantage of their wisdom, you have to learn how to listen. Yes, listen, with a capital L. (Read more about listening in my blog Giving Advice vs. Listening)

The second part, “he does not interrupt the words of his fellow” is something that does not come easily to some people. I’ve always wanted to record a video of my family – my wife, my two adult children, and two of my wife’s adult children – sitting around the dinner table. Everyone is talking at the same time. Interruptions are frequent. The introverted children can’t seem to get a word in edgewise. To say the least, it’s chaotic and frustrating for me, even though I talk a lot and interrupt. It seems like everyone has the most important thing in the world to share.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re listening to a customer and at some point in the conversation, you can’t wait to say something in response to what they are saying. Chances are, at some time during the conversation, you’ll interrupt the other person. This conversation then devolves into two monologues – yours and theirs. And, to make things worse, in order to be heard, one of you might talk over the other.

The next phrase states, “He does not rush to answer”. Our brain is wired to have the ability to solve complex problems. We’ve become so good at problem solving it comes naturally to us. Think about a time when a friend or relative came to you complaining about a work problem. Did you rush to try and the fix the problem?

When I first started my consulting business, I would be talking with a client about a marketing challenge, and I’d be saying to myself, “I’ve heard this problem a hundred times and I have plenty of fixes”. I was rushing to answer and solve the problem instead of building the relationship and probing deeper to find the root cause of the problem or hearing the client’s own insight to solve the problem.

The following phrase says, “He asks what is relevant to the subject matter and replies to the point”. When you are in the midst of a dialogue with a customer or referrer, you want to keep your comments brief and to the point. You ideally want to keep the customers focused on their needs as much as you can. Remember, it’s not about you! Sometimes, when I’m with a prospect, I lapse into, what my wife calls, “my strident mode”. I sound like I’m dogmatic in the way I come across. When I feel myself getting stirred up, I tell myself to return to the land of listening.

“He speaks of first things first and of last things last.” The goal of your initial conversation with prospects is to build a relationship. You don’t want to do what car salesmen do. When you walk into the car showroom, the salesman would hook you and start closing the sale by asking, “What color car are you looking for?” This tactic might work for selling cars. Is this any way to build a business relationship? I don’t think so.

And finally, the phrase “concerning that which he has not heard, he says, ‘I have not heard,’ and he acknowledges the truth”. Do you know how hard it is to answer a question by saying, “I don’t know” or “I’ve never heard of this”? I think I have all the answers. After all, I’m the “subject matter expert”. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” Will it tarnish your credibility? Nope. Will it make you more authentic? Yes.