Paying Attention versus Getting Attention

A columnist at a leading daily newspaper writes every week about ghosts, spirits, reincarnation, or in other words, supernatural stuff.  He is obviously popular as he’s been writing for the newspaper for decades.  He seems to be doing well as he’s consulted for some people and spoke at gatherings. 

I laugh at how people can believe the silly stuff this columnist writes about until I remind myself that I also have advised clients and spoke at gatherings in which I try to get people to believe everything I say. 

Am I really any different from the columnist who preaches unbelievable content?  I offer insights but they can be hard to digest especially if they entail big changes in mindsets. 

The columnist writes to get attention.  Apparently, so do I.  Many of us seek attention in our efforts to gain influence.  We advertise.  We preach.  We SHOUT. 

More so when it comes to management and staff.  Managers seeking attention talk a lot and remind their subordinates a lot.  I know because I do it a lot as a manager and I’m still working on getting to do it less. 

Sometimes and more often than not, it’s better to pay attention than get attention. 

As treasurer for several commercial buildings, I monitor the spending of property management companies the associations of these buildings hire.  In some cases, the property managers spend too much or they spend too little.  This causes budget overruns leading to running out of cash or under-runs in which a building hoards too much money that otherwise should have been spent for better services and infrastructure. 

When I sit down with a property manager to tell her how she should plan her spending, I’d often go into a long-winded speech about how she should have a vision for the building and how she should plan and present projects. 

Naturally, after several minutes, she’d be silent with a glassy stare.  And I know by then:

  1. She’s no longer listening;
  2. I’m talking too much. 

When I, however, ask questions about the challenges of her job, she starts talking.  As long as I keep asking, she keeps talking. 

And as she talks and I listen to what she’s saying, I realise she’s coming from a wholly different point of view than mine.  She’d start by saying that the property company she works demands numerous reports—reports that require considerable time to write and submit. 

The building manager also mentions that her superiors have pushed a roll-out of ISO (international standards for quality & compliance) in all their client projects and that she has deadlines to meet those standards. 

And so on and so forth the building manager would go about the training she has to go through, the meetings she has to attend at her company offices, the complaints of building tenants she has to address, etcetera, etcetera. 

At a point, it would take an effort for me not look at my watch, not put on a glassy stare, and not to pretend to listen.  Because from the effort to ask and the effort to listen, I get to learn what it’s like for the building manager.  And from learning what it’s like, I get to understand the backgrounds and rationale for how the building is managed. 

And as the building manager opens up, she opens up too to what I not only ask but also suggest.  Eventually, we come to a point where we both agree to ideas on how to better manage the building. 

By the way, this really happened.  In that building where I did ask and develop a rapport with the manager, both cashflow and spending for critical maintenance projects doubled in one year.  There were improvements in sewage, elevators, and air-conditioning equipment.  Collections of dues gained in efficiency and the manager was still able to comply with her company’s directives. 

Asking is a technique I’ve come to appreciate to have fruitful conversations and obtain tangible results.  Asking is a key component of listening, of what many in the human resources field are promoting as empathy. 

Taking away the buzzwords and hype, I’d just say asking works.  When we ask questions and listen to the answers, it starts a conversation.  As long as we don’t try cutting the other off, let the other talk, and digest what the other party is saying, we gain insights for ourselves which we can build on to suggest to the other side’s point of view.  Because when we work from another person’s point of view, the person seems to understand better what we’re talking about; they would welcome it more than if we were communicating from our own. 

We have a habit of trying to get attention to the things we want to say and preach.  It’s what we see what people do every day in the media and in our everyday lives.  We end up doing it too in our attempt to expand our turfs and gain influence. 

I’ve learned, however, that paying attention works better.  It’s done by asking, listening, and asking again, until rapport is built and ideas flow.  And by experience, when ideas flow, doable solutions to problems follow.  And I’ve seen the real-life benefits.  

Ask, listen, repeat.  It works. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

How to Deal with Insults

I was insulted the other day.  A senior director on the board of trustees of a high-rise building said I lacked technical education and experience.  For a person who is an engineering graduate and has been in business for almost 40 years, that sounded very much at least like an insult. 

It’s not the first time.  The same senior director accused me of being out of touch and living in an “ivory tower.”   A priest once called me a liar.  Others have called me “stupid” and an “idiot.” 

As we get older in our jobs, conflicts are inevitable.  We will have disagreements with people we work with.  There will be debates that lead to heated arguments.  Almost always, the parties involved will be professional and will focus on the issues.  Once in a while, however, the conflicts would escalate into quarrels that would result in name-calling and insults, and sometimes fist-fights.

People have gotten angry at me and have scolded me.  Some of them I deserve for errors I made; some because I took a stand on an issue. 

We as professionals know better not to insult others.  Yet, it happens, sometimes unintentionally due to emotional outbursts, and sometimes unfortunately because the person doing the insulting is just plain bad.     

We were taught that insults are wrong.  Most religions tell us to respect our neighbours.  Social and legal norms urge restraint and resolution with the help of third parties. 

The latest trend is to exercise empathy, that is, to foster understanding of the points of view of others.  Understanding others would cool any conflict down. 

Exercising empathy is a skill.  It requires practice and it takes time to master.  There’s also no clear standard to know if one has even mastered empathy.  We’d have to rely on the results. 

In this cut-throat world we live in, we play to win.  We therefore become defensive or frustrated when someone else disagrees with us and seems to be putting up barriers to where we want to go.  When that happens, we sometimes lose our cool and we end up insulting others. 

There are also people who just have that personality to insult others.  It’s like they adapted a policy to insult others so as to overcome and step over them.  Whatever we do or say, as much as we try to empathise, they just go on to insult us.  We respond by either avoiding them or insulting them back.  The first is an escape; the other leads to war. 

There are people who don’t let insults affect them and are very good in cultivating relationships with difficult people.  We call these people charismatic and gifted.  We try to emulate them.  But they seem to be in a class by themselves. 

Insults, left by themselves, escalate conflicts and cause wars.  We can avoid those who insult us or become like them and insult them back.  Or we can somehow patiently learn and practice the skills of empathy and become impervious to insults.

It’s our call. 

About Overtimers Anonymous