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Brass balls and midgets

May 28, 2010

One of my favorite stories of cultural disconnect (found on page four of the text this links to) is about the famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. I first heard it in a grad school lecture and I think about  it often in my business and personal life. The story goes like this:

Levi-Strauss was in the Amazon living among a group of indigenous people there, studying their society and culture. He decides to bring a member of the group back to the United States with him so he can learn about what Levi-Strauss’ culture and society are like.

He brings him to New York on an airplane and shows him around Manhattan for a couple of weeks: he goes to the top of the Empire State building in an elevator, travels by car and subway, is shown telephones, radio, and telegraphs—in short, gets a chance to experience first-hand all the technological wonders and marvels the first world has to offer.

They return to the Amazon, and Levi-Strauss is sitting with him as he relates to his friends and family what he saw on his trip. Does he talk about flying in a plane, riding in a subway train or car, the magic of radio or the telephone, the majesty of the world’s tallest building? No, not a word about any of these. So what did he find compelling enough to share with everyone once he got back home?

Brass balls and midgets.

As impossible as it sounds to us, these were the only two things from his trip that he found interesting enough to talk about. Compared to all he saw and did, these two would seem to be almost totally irrelevant. Brass balls and midgets should have been completely eclipsed by any number of other things he was exposed to on his travels. But to him and his family and friends, these were the real marvels of the first world.

The disheartening lesson Levi-Strauss took away from this experience is that perhaps his efforts to understand this group living in the Amazon, all his discoveries of what they were “really like”, amounted to nothing more than the equivalent of brass balls and midgets. What was to say that his theories were any closer to what this Amazon tribe was “really about” than brass balls and midgets were to Western culture?

This story comes to mind for me without fail whenever I’m talking to a client. In every case, there’s some kind of compelling trigger event—and they’re taking the time to talk to a consultant, so you know it must be powerful! And precisely because I’m a consultant, the entire time they’re talking, at least 50% of my brain is racing to find a way to solve their problem: Do I have a product or service that fits the bill? Are there any people in my network I could connect them with? Have I read or written and relevant white papers or blogs? DO I have anything smart I can say that might help them?

The problem with all this is that I’m only using 50% of my brain to do the most important thing I need to be doing at that moment: listening to the client. And that’s on a good day. Throw in any number of real life concerns that are running through my mind at any given time, and that percentage begins to drop precipitously.

Now, when the client stops talking and looks to me to respond, I’m in real danger of serving them up brass balls and midgets: a tried and true, but not entirely relevant, solution; a couple of names of people who might be able to help them; a laundry list of content they might find useful; or a bunch of consultant speak that misses the mark (cue Charlie Brown teacher voice).

Given all these dangers, as soon as the client begins to speak to me and takes the time to engage in a conversation around things that are vitally important to them and their business, I immediately think of Levi-Strauss and remind myself not to find brass balls and midgets, but to listen to what the client is actually saying, to push myself to understand the scope and nature of their problem or issue, to create a mental parking lot of questions or clarifications I think we need to touch on…and nothing more. Not solutions, not responses, not helpful resources—nothing. And when they stop talking and look to me for a response, I start the difficult but ultimately very rewarding process of helping them articulate their problem or issue, which is the only way to have a shot at getting beyond those brass balls and midgets waiting to take center stage at every turn.

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