Now that I do a lot of public speaking, I am flying a lot – two or three times a month. There are a lot of perks to travel, like expensive hotel rooms and a break from my kids. But my favorite perk is meeting sales guys.
Warning: here come generalizations with no data to back them up. Most people who fly on Sunday night and Thursday night are consultants – all those young people who clawed their way to the popular starter jobs at Deloitte and Ernst & Young. But most of the people flying during the week are speaking or selling, and the people in those careers who travel a lot are men. So it’s no surprise that I’ve been meeting a lot of sales guys.
It’s great for me, because I was not born with good social skills, I’ve learned them. So I see the time on the airplane as a time for learning specific tips from people who make a living from having good emotional intelligence.
Here are three things I’ve learned from the sales guys I’ve met.
1. Count how many times you interrupt someone.
If you ask a sales guy why they are good at sales, they always say they are good listeners. And then, in fact, they display those skills during the flight.
I am not a good listener. I spend the flight hearing myself interrupt. Constantly.
It sounds like a moment that is bad for my emotional intelligence work, but really, it’s good. It’s good because it allows me to go to the next step, which is asking myself why I am so reluctant to wait to hear what someone has to say. That’s where I am now – asking myself that.
And I think I’m on the right track, because I think better social skills come from asking yourself better questions about why you are the way you are.
2. Learn to read very specific types of language.
Last week I was having lunch with a guy I met on a plane. He will have a fit when he reads this because the first thing someone with high emotional intelligence tells me when they sit down with me is that I can’t write about them in my blog.
We were talking about what his company could do for a blog strategy, and I was thinking about how I could convince him that his company should pay my company to do something. And Mr. Salesguy asked me a question, and I didn’t like what the answer was going to be, so I started trying to think of another answer.
And he said, “Hey, are you going to lie to me right now?”
I said, “What?” I tried to say it in an incredulous way, but in hindsight I’m sure I just sounded panicked.
He said, “When you ask someone a question, if they are right-handed and they look to the left before they answer, then they are trying to recall the information. If they look to the right then they are trying to make up something new. You looked to the right.”
It was so smart of him. Because for the rest of the lunch I was very honest. Not that I’m not honest in general, but I basically gave the first answer that came to my head for everything because I was so nervous that I wouldn’t be able to control my eye movement. It’s a great way to get the upper hand in a conversation.
I can’t wait to catch someone else in this act.
3. Stop thinking your situation is special. It’s not. Rules are useful to everyone.
Here’s another thing I learned from sales guys. They ask the same questions everyone else asks on the plane, like, “Are you going home or leaving home?” I would feel stupid asking that, because it’s so conventional, but it works as a way to start a conversation. Every time.
These routine conversations are just social conventions to allow strangers to start talking. Which drives home to me that social conventions are there to help.
Take something as simple as holding a door for someone. Social convention says do it if someone is right behind you. But the rule is actually just there so the door doesn’t slam in someone’s face.
A lot of times, people think that their particular situation is so complicated that you can’t have rules – you just have to wing it. This is where having a threesome comes in.
I get a lot of books in the mail from publishers who want me to write a review. When I got The Threesome Handbook by Vicki Vantoch, I thought the publisher had gone nuts. But I noticed she is a sex historian and she writes for the Washington Post. So I took a look at the book.
And it turns out that a threesome is actually a very complicated social situation, and the best way to make sure everyone stays happy is to have rules that people follow. I’m not going to into the intricacies of negotiations, but chapter four is called “Strategies for Navigating Freak-outs, Jealousy, and General Messiness.”
And, winging it actually means guessing what people want. But guessing is hard.
So asking for rules is important, listening is important, practicing very specific skills is important. Also, making a public commitment to having better social skills is important, which is why, I think, I blog about this topic so often.