Nothing is likely to frustrate me as much in conversation as people who assume they know what I am feeling or thinking and what I value when they do not know me or do not ask me any questions to find out.
When I observe assumptions being made in business I get just as frustrated.
Selling is a fertile field of assumption making. Two of our neighbours separately told me of a story about a farmer and his son who went to buy a car.
The car in question was a Rolls Royce. The location was the wheat farming area of northern Victoria in Australia. The father was a simple man with a simple farmer’s dress sense, wearing clean working clothes when he went into “town”.
The sales man, spotting the simply dressed farmer looking over the latest model Rolls Royce approached with a mind set of being polite but intending to move the loiterers on.
The farmer asked to take the car for a test drive. The salesman was a little bit uncertain what to do. He decided to go along with the request but felt he first had to make it clear to the farmer where he sat in the pecking order by asking him “Are you aware that these cars are worth 20,000 pounds?” (It was pre-decimal time).
After returning from the test drive when the sales person was less than interested in his prospect and more desirous of getting back quickly to go to lunch, the farmer asked the purchase price again. “I did say it was 20,000 pounds, Sir”, the salesman said imperiously. “OK”, the farmer said, turning to his son and adding, “Go out into the ute and get the briefcase” said the farmer. The salesman’s jaw dropped and his imperious attitude was replaced by an empathetic, almost fawning attitude as the briefcase was retrieved and opened to reveal neat stacks of cash. After counting the money the excited salesman was disappointed to have to tell the framer that he was 2000 pounds short. To which the farmer replied, “Son, don’t be so stupid. I meant the other briefcase!”
The salesman’s prejudice and superior attitude, coupled with his lazy sales technique which involved asking not one question almost cost him his commission on a big sale and risked upsetting what could have been a valuable lifetime customer.
People who do not ask questions, do not listen to others views and do not work as a team also risk not unravelling the answers to questions which bedevil them.
I tell an unoriginal tale to illustrate the point.
Six blind men were discussing exactly what they believed an elephant to be, since each had heard how strange the creature was, yet none had ever seen one before. So the blind men agreed to find an elephant and discover what the animal was really like.
It didn’t take the blind men long to find an elephant at a nearby market. The first blind man approached the beast and felt the animal’s firm flat side. “It seems to me that the elephant is just like a wall,” he said to his friends.
The second blind man reached out and touched one of the elephant’s tusks. “No, this is round and smooth and sharp – the elephant is like a spear.”
Intrigued, the third blind man stepped up to the elephant and touched its trunk. “Well, I can’t agree with either of you; I feel a squirming writhing thing – surely, the elephant is just like a snake.”
The fourth blind man was, of course, by now quite puzzled. So he reached out, and felt the elephant’s leg. “You are all talking complete nonsense,” he said, “because clearly the elephant is just like a tree.”
Utterly confused, the fifth blind man stepped forward and grabbed one of the elephant’s ears. “You must all be mad – an elephant is exactly like a fan.”
Duly, the sixth man approached, and, holding the beast’s tail, disagreed again. “It’s nothing like any of your descriptions – the elephant is just like a rope.”
And all six blind men continued to argue, based on their own particular experiences, as to what they thought an elephant was like. It was an argument that they were never able to resolve. Each of them was concerned only with their own idea. None of them had the full picture, and none could see any of the other’s points of view. Each man saw the elephant as something quite different and while in part each blind man was right, none was wholly correct.
In life and in business if we do not ask questions and do not seek other perspectives we miss opportunities and remain blind to the whole of a problem and the opportunities to solve it.