• Paul Rutherford

EN GARDE!


As I walked through a shopping mall earlier this week, a young woman sitting at her sales display called me across the concourse:

"Do you know what we're doing here today?"

Such a bizzare enquiry.

Even now, I have no idea what she was pitching; I can remember a display of Victorian-style pharmaceutical drawers, and bottles set on the top, I think. As I close my eyes and try to recall, the display is a blur. Her question is more vivid.

"Do you know what we're doing here today?"

As a man in a hurry for spouse birthday gifts, I didn't miss a beat in replying "No" and strode past. Her questions gave me instant permission to rush past.

And yet, and yet... a step later, my deep-seated sense of good manners tumbled into consciousness (and probably become a Freudian conference paper). The young woman was doing a job. Perhaps it was her first step into sales? Perhaps she was earning a crust to pay her tuition fees? Perhaps she was an actress, waiting her next audition?

An encouraging word never goes amiss, and isn't difficult, is it?

By my third step past her, I realized that my response had been triggered by the phrasing of her question:

"Do you know what we're doing here today?"

A closed question, which invited a binary response:

a) Yes. (I do know what you're doing - and if I were interested I'd have stopped for more information already. If not interested, end of conversation.)

or

b) No. (End of conversation.)

So while I didn't have the time nor inclination to find out the purpose of the display, I'd feel better by giving her some constructive feedback. By my fifth step I was turning to the right, then the right again, and a moment later was standing in front of the young woman again.

"Hello again" I said. In a microsecond, her face was screaming 'confused'. I continued:

"A moment ago you asked me a question: Did I know what you're doing here today?"

She frowned, sort of.

"I just wanted to let you know that you're making it easy to say 'no', which could be really soul-destroying if that happens all day."

She shrugged, sort of.

"'Do you know...?' is a closed question. You're inviting a closed answer, which makes it easy to reject."

She smiled, sort of.

"So I suggest that you think of a few open questions - how? what? how? Make them invitations for people to engage with you. I'm sure you'll increase positive response rates."

She looked at me and through me at the same time. I was beginning to think this wasn't such a good idea.

"Can I give you some feedback?" she asked, face like ice. I nodded.

"Even when you're right, it's better to give feedback when you know that the other person wants it. I don't. Have a good day."

Lesson learned.

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