Seth Kahan
Author, consultant

Seth Kahan

Change expert and author who has advised executives in 50-plus organizations, including Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps and NASA. He can be reached at


Food and values

Q: Some Japanese chefs have a "problem" -- their restaurants earned one or more Michelin stars, the world's biggest culinary honor. The chefs say they cook for their customers, not strangers, and they don't relish the attention. Top Western chefs have a beef, too, saying Japanese chefs mostly stick to tradition, so their dishes aren't as praiseworthy. The two cultures seem to define success differently. What are the consequences of each approach, and is one better than the other?

Neither is better, but the disconnect highlights the importance of cultural variety. Michelin would do well to consider the sensitivities of those they are seeking to court, whether for business or simple honor. Either way, you must understand the values at play if you want to be successful.

This applies in ordinary life as well. Value is always determined in the eye of the beholder and many organizations and people forget this to their detriment. As a result they are perceived as overbearing, heartless, and inconsiderate. Their communication, marketing and outreach efforts then backfire, generating more animosity than good will.

The remedy is simple, though filled with nuance: spend some time listening before you move.

An excellent way to learn about others is through a technique I highlight in my recent book, Getting Change Right, storylistening. Storylistening is paying careful attention to another's story. It accomplishes two important goals simultaneously: gathering valuable information and building trust.

Here are four of the eight storylistening skills I cover in the book:

1. Listen with purpose. You are listening to build trust and gather relevant information, in that order. If you build trust but do not gain all of the needed information, it will be easy to go back as needed and pick up what you didn't get the first time. However, if you gather information but fail to create rapport grounded in mutual respect, you may not be able to count on the information you have retrieved, and likely there won't be any more conversations.

2. Use effective body language, even on the phone. When you are on the phone, arrange your body as you do when you are listening in person. I don't know why it works, but it does. I've heard it said, "If you're not happy, smile. You soon will be happy." And I've found it to be true. Paying attention with your entire being, even if a phone line separates you, will improve the quality of your listening.

3. Follow the stories. Narrative is a natural structure. Stories inevitably point the way toward what the person cares about most -- her observations, insights, and conclusions.

4. Ask questions to guide the interaction. You are there to listen and learn. Rather than making statements or elaborating on your own observations, ask questions. To learn about customer service, for example, ask, "And how important is customer service in your work? What are the most important aspects of customer service as you see them? What have been the biggest issues with customer service so far? Do you think improved customer service would address that?"

Michelin would have improved their efforts if they had taken time to listen to the Japanese chefs' stories before they implemented their recognition. With some tact they could have generated a more receptive response as will anyone who takes the time to listen first and adjust their behavior accordingly.

By Seth Kahan  |  November 1, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Defining success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Those chefs ought to have showed some grace by accepting the award without all the snarky editorial about their culture...they seem terribly ungrateful.

Posted by: pamschuh9 | November 8, 2010 12:48 PM
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There are thousands of bar and restaurant owners across the U.S. who prefer to develop a regular local customer base rather than pursue the tourist trade. They intentionally avoid recognition and advertising because tourists don't mix well with a crowd of locals. So maybe its cultural, or maybe it is a standard business strategy everywhere in the world.

Posted by: cyclocross | November 1, 2010 3:12 PM
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Imagine that-someone actually refused an award! What a total misread by Michelin. Perhaps if they had bothered to get information (discreetly) they might have understood that those chefs do what they do for cultural reasons and their customers. Have they ever been to a restaurant in Japan? If they had perhaps they would have understood that awards are not welcome.

Posted by: vpucsekberman | November 1, 2010 9:27 AM
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