It's a full-page ad showing husband and wife back to back, gazing disconsolately out of different windows.
"What's the point of talking, you don't listen to me anyway." That's the headline. The copy is beneath the picture:
"It starts out innocently enough.
"A man tunes in a football game and tunes out his wife's attempts to be heard.
"A woman gets so wrapped up in her problems she barely listens as her husband talks about his own.
"And before long, without even realizing how it came about, a deadly silence starts to grow between them. . ."
There is more: 60-second spots for TV showing how a failure to listen doomed the Light Brigade, lost Gettysburg for the South, caused the Titanic disaster.
Sperry Corporation wants us all to listen. The giant firm, with 90,000 employees in 34 countries, has launched something more than an ad campaign. It is, they say, a management philosophy.
It is also good business for Sperry.
"We're able to bid on major systems contracts now, where before we couldn't have got a foot in the door," said one executive. n"It's put us on the map in the computer industry. You can't set a dollar value on it, but business is definitely looking up."
The fact is that many new computer customers aren't aware that the field is much bigger than IBM and that, more than some other products, a computer system must be tailored very precisely to the needs of the company. Hence the emphasis on listening.
Since the program began last October, some 10,000 employees have taken the seven-hour course, beginning at the top. The course differs, depending on whether you're a salesperson, "customer engineer," systems analyst or top executive.
Since last fall the firm has spent $10 million on research and advertising alone. It has been studying listening for nearly two years.
The public has responded too, hungrily. Since last fall at least 35,000 people throughout the world have spotted the small type at the bottom of the ads and written in for more information.
What is this sudden interest in listening? In our competitive industrial society it has a bad name: Many consider the notion of standing still to listen to other people passive, compliant, maybe even weak. You're supposed to tell it to them, right? Listening is for sissies.
The fact is, we listen at about 25-percent efficiency. How many times have you given someone a phone number . . . and given it again . . . and again, digit by digit? Surely the miraculous human brain can take in seven digits at once? But no, they still get it wrong. How many times have you had to respell your name? How many times have you been given medium instead of medium rare, Pittsburgh instead of Harrisburg, Time instead of The Times?
In the Sperry listening seminars, subjects watch a TV skit: A boss asks four different employees in turn if a certain unnamed job can be done by Friday. They all say yes, but in each case the manner is different, the tone, the gestures, the attitude. The subjects rate the four characters. On each one, the ratings range from very low to very high. The conclusion: listening is a tremendously complex business which involves nonverbal messages as well as words.
If, as Sperry says, every working person in the country made one $10 listening mistake ("I said this Thursday, you fool, not next Thursday!"), it would cost us $1 billion.
Listening can be taught.
Dr. Lyman K. Steil has been teaching it for 16 years at the University of Minnesota, carrying on after Ralph Nichols, "the father of listening," who devised the program in the '40s. Steil gives a 10-week course in effective listening. He is directing Sperry's program.
In his 32 years of research, he has found that we spend 80 percent of our waking hours communicating with others of the species (not counting cats and dogs). Of that time, 75 percent is spent in verbal communication, 45 percent of it in listening. The more sophisticated the job, the more you listen. An elementary school pupil spends 57 percent of the day listening, a college student 69 percent, a management person even more, theoretically.
"One reason we don't listen is because we're so busy," said Steil. "There's tremendous distortion and distraction." He told of lecturing a group for a full day, referring to himself often as Steil (as in "style"), only to have one member call him "Dr. Steel" from morning to night.
"The poor listener doesn't identify or control distractions," he added. "The effective listener is aware of them. Emotional control is important. Especially in a political town like Washington, listening is vital. Millions of Americans have already tuned out all those people who might be leading the country in a few months."
The main thing, he emphasized, is that the listener has equal responsibility with the speaker for understanding what is said. A message depends as much on the receiver as on the sender.
"The poor listener is always saying, 'You better say . . . you better say . . .' and when the speech is over, 'You shoulda said . . . you shoulda said. . .'"
The Sperry Univac people on Wisconsin Avenue took the course recently. The first group was mostly salespersons, a lively bunch full of jokes and questions. The second batch was mostly systems analysts, engineers and other relatively silent types. There were 16 men and six women. The men tended to talk and the women to listen. (Our society trains them this way.) It was strictly first names, Bo, Wade, Deedee, Ron, Nancy, Buddy.
The teacher was Dr. Diane K. Whitney, who pointed out that if she had put her name on the blackboard as "Dr. D. K. Whitney" before entering, we would have expected a man. (That's part of listening, too: you have to be aware of your own biases and filtering devices.)
For a full day we went through the course, watched TV dialogues, performed in skits, practiced being good listeners. We also were given demonstrations of the endless difficulty of analyzing the subtleties of human communication, separating the indisputable from the presumed. Here is a story we had to read and answer questions on:
"Jackie was about to lock the door to the store when a man pushed his way in and demanded money. The owner opened a cash register. The contents of the cash register were handed to the man who hurried away, frequently glancing back over his shoulder. A member of the police force was called immediately."
Which of these statements can be made?
1. A man appeared as the owner was about to lock the door of his store.
2. The robber was a man.
3. Someone demanded money.
4. The man who opened the cash register was the owner.
5. The store owner was a man named Jackie.
6. The contents of the cash register were handed to the man.
7. After the robber received the money, he hurried away.
8. The cash register contained money.
9. The robber demanded money from Jackie.
10. There are three people referred to: the owner of the store, a man who demanded money and a member of the police force.
Only the third and sixth statements are true. You're not even sure there was a robbery.
To be a good listener, we learned, one must first sense what is being communicated, not only through words but through body language, blinks, gestures, intonations and so on. Second, one interprets, searching for the intended meaning, striving to achieve empathy, paraphrasing along the way ("You say it's going to cost $50,000, right?"). Third, one evaluates the message, deciding how much is fact and how much opinion, gathering evidence, discounting one's own biases. Fourth, one responds.
"It's our obligation as listener to show we're receptive," said Whitney. "We signal that We're paying attention, that we have taken in what is said, and then we accept or reject it. So often we hear something, interpret it, then forget what was said and act only on the interpretation. That's when you get into trouble."
What it comes down to, then, is awareness. It's the message of psychiatry, of the self-realization doctrines, of all the world's philosophies. Perhaps you could say it's the businessperson's version of the famous last words of the great German mystic and scholar, Baron von Hugel: "Caring is all. Caring is the only thing."