by Terry Linhart

I recently attended a conference and watched a colleague approach our group. We made the usual small talk that happens when you see people but a few times a year. It was fun! I introduced my colleague to the others with me. A couple were college students. He said to them, “What do you do at the college? No wait… let me guess.” He then guessed the volleyball player (it helped him that she was tall and had the shoulders of an outside hitter) and turned to the other, “Your major is….. theater.” She was baffled! I was too. How in the world did he get that? She wasn’t wearing all black clothing nor giving it away with any wording on her shirt or backpack.

We started to ask how he knew because this was really spooky. He smiled. “It was the way you greeted me,” he said. And then he showed how this college student had leaned into the handshake with a smile on her face as if performing.

Impressive. He paid attention.

One of the qualities I am most proud of regarding Arbor Research Group is the level of attentiveness the consultants give to the everyday world, what we call getting down to “street level.”  Consulting guru Alan Weiss says, “Active listening is one of the rarer traits in consulting” and that most “consultants tend to talk at 35,000 feet while the client is dealing with problems on the ground.” I think we do that well.

Another colleague and I were at a reception the following day. I noticed him at the other end of the table, engaging a man who looked disheveled in a well-worn Minnesota Vikings sweatshirt. From a distance, one might pre-judge him as a former college football player who hadn’t done well since those days. My colleague paid attention and discovered he was a trial lawyer who worked on behalf of people experiencing poverty. Since he wasn’t “at work,” he wore whatever he felt like to the reception. His advocacy for those in poverty affected his clothing choices as he considered their lives and carefully chose to wear what he wore. Though he could afford good and even “better than,” he chose the best option.

At the same time, I had turned to talk with a waiter who had come over because another person and I were watching soccer highlights on my phone. Soccer is the world’s sport (go Arsenal!) and this man, originally from Turkey, had played in Germany 35 years ago. Now, he waited tables at a convention center in middle America. From a distance, one might pre-judge him as a poor immigrant without options other than working in service roles. I paid attention to him and discovered he owned a home on the Mediterranean. Yes. Indeed. He bought it over 30 years ago. For the last 25 years, he worked jobs in the US to make a better hourly wage while spending the winters on the southern coast of Turkey in his home. He is planning to retire there in a year. Smart man.

A trial lawyer in LA. A home on the Mediterranean. Now pay attention.

The polls regarding the 2016 election in the US showed a large gap between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Everyone was poised to celebrate Clinton’s victory and the interior designers had already met with the candidate as boxed began to move toward the White House. Then the explosion, a BOOM that wasn’t the confetti that looked like shattered glass going off; it was the bombshell that Donald Trump had indeed won the presidency. The world was in shock for at least two days.

Pollsters erred in significant ways. They missed the subtleties of those who are “moderate,” who live in the middle states, and who (in this election) didn’t like either candidate. They missed the dislike of the candidates and the silence of the moderate majority who didn’t vote at all in the election. Only the USC/L.A.Times poll got it right ahead of time. They paid attention. While most pollsters and press corp members lived in their bubble east of I-95, the USC/LA Times analysts were paying attention nationwide. They looked beyond one-word answers (yes/no) for levels of trust in candidates and levels of commitment to answers over time. When dealing with people, we need to pay attention to intangibles not represented by percentages.

People are more than a stereotype, a role, or a number. The guy in the Minnesota sweatshirt may make 4x what you and I do. The waiter may own a home we can only dream of even vacationing in, and the report you’re looking at to make decisions may be missing the most important data you need… matters like trust, desire, and commitment.

Funny, at that same conference a day later, I was identified by a consulting group to be interviewed; They considered me a “keystone” informant! Arbor Research Group had worked for a few of this group’s competitors, so I knew their routine in identifying who could help launch a fundraising campaign. However, the consultant was not paying attention to me. He was preoccupied at the 35,000-foot level of raising money. He took me through the same scripted eight questions I have seen other fundraising groups use. He wasn’t really interested in my perspective or uniqueness. He just wanted my one-word answers so he could do his job and get a number. He had no clue I had coached consultants like him on improving their work in doing what he was doing with me.

And I didn’t care to let him know. I sometimes guess there are people I encounter who wish I would pay more attention to them. And they don’t care to let me know.

So, who around us might we need to pay attention to today? Who might be more than we imagine at first glance? That’s right, everyone is more than we imagine. Even those waiting tables so they can feed their kids and pay a few bills.

Let’s have a great week!

And let’s pay attention.



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