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February 25, 2005 » 8:43 am

Shut Up And Listen

Okay, I’m out. I watch The Apprentice religiously.    (IDJ)

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s start with the Donald’s not-so-trite advice from last night’s episode: Shut Up and Listen. Tara felt that as a native New Yorker and as an African-American woman, she would best understand Net Worth’s target demographic: males residing in Harlem, ages 18-35. It was clear from the start that she had a strong vision for what the ad should look like, and throughout the task, she consistently ignored what everyone else had to say. Even in the end, after watching folks from the focus group say how the ad didn’t appeal to them, whereas Magna’s did, Tara insisted that her ad was better.    (IDK)

Meanwhile, Alex, a white guy who grew up on a farm and admittedly had no idea what the picture should look like, stumbled onto a brilliant plan. He found his target audience, he asked them questions, and he listened. Surprise, surprise. Magna won.    (IDL)

There’s an important lesson here. I had Tara down as one of the top candidates, and I think Trump made a mistake in firing her. (Of course, his early round decisions tend to be a bit arbitrary, most likely for the ratings.) As Trump himself said, she’s smart and tough. But that doesn’t make you a good listener.    (IDM)

In writer’s workshops, the writer is often asked to sit outside of a circle of critics and is usually asked to sit on his or her hands. I learned this past weekend that the requirements are similar for designers or developers during usability testing. Sitting on one’s hands is an important pattern, because the instinct to defend is so strong in these circumstances.    (IDN)

William Langewiesche tells a beautiful story about listening in American Ground. He describes a meeting on November 12, 2001 between those running the World Trade Center recovery, including Rudy Giuliani, Mike Burton, and Bill Cote, and the widows of the firemen who died. The widows were furious about their treatment throughout the recovery process, and the strength of their feelings blindsided the recovery organizers. Langewiesche writes:    (IDO)

The mayor handled himself well that night. He was patient and compassionate, and he allowed the grieving crowd to rail, but he did not pander to it.    (IDP)

…    (IDQ)

Burton and Cote were badly shaken. When the meeting ended, after more than three hours of emotional storms, the two of them got into Burton’s Jeep and drove away through the quiet streets. At first they did not speak, except briefly to agree that the experience had been the worst of their lives. In the theater district they found a bar, and went in for a drink. The other customers there — tourists pioneering a return to the city, lovers hunched together before bed, late-night regulars of various kinds — could never have guessed the role of these nondescript men, or the utter seriousness of their talk.    (IDR)

The widows’ meeting turned out to be a watershed in the Trade Center recovery. Burton and Cote were tough guys, accustomed to seeing life as a struggle, and they would not have been unjustified had they responded impatiently to the encounter. This was dangerous to admit out loud, but it was on many people’s minds: the firemen’s widows were victims of victimization itself, and in their agony and myopia they were starting to blunder around; moreover, they clearly did not represent the thousands of others who had lost family on September 11 and were coming to terms with the events more stoically. It would have been understandable, therefore, if Burton and Cote had mentally stiff-armed the widows, privately dismissing their emotions as overblown and rededicating themselves to the efficiency of the excavation. They had it within their power to do this — and had they been officials in many other parts of the world, they probably would have followed such a hard line. It was lucky for the ultimate success of the recovery effrt that this was not the way they naturally reacted.    (IDS)

Instead, over a couple of beers they talked for the first time since September 11 about people’s emotional reactions to the attack, and they questioned why they themselves had felt so little affected by the death and destruction at the site. Burton called Cote a “cold fish.” Cote pointed out that neither of them had family or close friends who had died. It also had to be admitted that the project was going well, and that for both of them it was utterly consuming professionally, offering an emotional advantage that others did not have: they simply did not have time to dwell on the tragedy. Still, each had been moved that night by the suffering of the widows, and had been troubled by the realization that, though they had tried to do the best possible job, there were people who now believed that their actions were wrong, even wicked. It made them question the doggedness of their approach, and reminded them of a simple imperative that in the crush of daily decisions they were tending to forget: that the unbuilding was more than just a problem of deconstruction, and that for the final measure of success they would have to take emotions into account. They finished their beers, drove downtown, and walked through the site.    (IDT)

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