Glengarry Glen Ross is one of my favorite movies of all time (even though I only watched it this year, after having had it on my to-watch list for years). The story (spoiler alert!) revolves around a group of real-estate statesmen, some promising new sales leads, and a plot by a couple of the salesmen to steal the leads locked in the manager's office, make it look like a burglary, and defect to a competing firm, where they expect to get a good price for the leads.

My favorite scene in the movie involves the tired, aging, once-a-star-salesman Levene (Jack Lemmon) and Williamson, the sociopath manager (Kevin Spacey). The scene illustrates a fantastic "slightly evil" listening strategy I call "cold-blooded listening."  Cold-blooded listening is, for slightly-evil sociopaths, what nice, good-natured "active listening" is for losers.

This scene occurs the morning after the robbery when Williamson is busy helping the police. Roma (Al Pacino), the most successful salesman, who knows nothing about the plot, has just yelled at Williamson, because the burglary has caused him to lose a certain sale, and stormed out. Levene (who is part of the lead-stealing plot), currently the least successful salesman, who has just managed to close a sale the previous night, after a long time, decides to join in the fun and yell at Williamson too. All the pent-up anger and resentment comes pouring out, as Levene uses his rare opportunity to tell Williamson exactly what he thinks of him. Here's what happens:
            ...excuse me, nothing, you be as
            cold as you want, but you just
            fucked a good man out of six
            thousand dollars and his goddamn
            bonus 'cause you didn't know the
            shot, if you can do that and you
            aren't man enough that it gets you,
            then I don't know what, if you
            can't take some thing from that...
                   (blocking his way)
            you're scum, you're fucking white-
            bread.  You be as cold as you want.
            A child would know it, he's right.
            You're going to make something up,
            be sure it will help or keep your
            mouth closed.



Levene lifts up his arm.

            Now I'm done with you.


            How do you know I made it up?


            How do you know I made it up?

            What are you talking about?

            You said, "You don't make something
            up unless it's sure to help."
            How did you know that I made it up?

            What are you talking about?

            I told the customer that his
            contracts had gone to the bank.

            Well, hadn't it?

            It hadn't.

            Don't fuck with me, John, don't
            fuck with me...what are you saying?

            Well, I'm saying this, Shel:
            usually I take the contracts to the
            bank.  Last night I didn't.  How
            did you know that?  One night in a
            year I left a contract on my desk.
            Nobody knew that but you.  Now how
            did you know that?
            You want to talk to me, you want to
            talk to someone else...because this
            is my job.  This is my job on the
            line, and you are going to talk to
            me.  Now how did you know that
            contract was on my desk?

            You're so full of shit.

            You robbed the office.
See what happened here?

Williamson listened in a completely cold-blooded way to Levene's rant (Spacey of course, plays this brilliantly, in his usual low-reactor way). The insults and ad hominems roll right off him. He is completely confident in his own assessment of himself, and feels no need to defend himself against Levene's rant, or even acknowledge it (he does the same thing in response to Roma's rant in the scene just preceding this one).

But he does listen. He picks up on the one piece of actual information accidentally let out by Levene that is useful to him, the one piece that reveals that Levene knows something about the burglary. And suddenly, the tables are turned. Levene, who is being unusually cocky based on a sale (a shaky one that Williamson knows won't stick, incidentally, since the prospects are known mind-changers) tried to do some high-status crowing instead of low-status whining and groveling for a change. But he is simply not as tough as Williamson, and the tables get turned.

This is a fantastically valuable skill to learn. And a very difficult one. It goes well beyond thick skin. It is hardened-cop style "anything you say can and will be used against you" listening. To get there takes a very special kind of personal growth:
  1. Get beyond thick skin: the only way to get to total impassivity in the face of strident criticism and insults is practice. And I am afraid this means developing a certain capacity for contempt. Williamson is clearly contemptuous of Levene's opinion here.
  2. Beyond-thick-skinned, contemptuous listening means you don't take what is said about your personality as serious feedback worth responding to. But this does not mean you don't listen. You listen in a sort of objective, clinical way, like a researcher observing an angry animal in a cage. Your radar is primed for information that is useful to you, not information that the other party thinks you ought to know (and is maliciously delighted to be able to give you).
  3. And remember, listening does not mean agreeing or debating. You can choose to listen, draw your own conclusions, and walk away, or steer the conversation so it proceeds on terms that are useful to you (as Spacey did). You don't have to convince the other person of your conclusions. Or even share them. Notice how Williamson doesn't reveal his "you robbed the office" conclusion until after he's done testing it as a hypothesis by following the clue and watching Levene fumble. Levene has no clue why Williamson is asking about the "made up" line, and Williamson doesn't bother to explain. He just assumes, like any good alpha, that he doesn't have to explain himself to Levene, and that he'll get a revealing response without having to explain the question.
I have to admit, I am not at the Spacey-Williamson level yet, but I have no problems admitting that I do aspire to it. I believe in responsiveness, empathy and listening. I also believe the world is phenomenally full of morons who are too full of themselves, whose opinions on most subjects can be ignored. Especially their opinions on your personality (heck, you are shooting for "slightly evil" anyway, which means you are shooting for effectiveness. Do you really expect to be liked as well?).

This is not a defense mechanism we are talking about here. When criticized, too many people fall into one of two basic errors. The first is to take the criticism as true on the face of it, without analysis, and earnestly attempt to change. That's just dumb. The second is to assume the criticism says more about the criticizer's personality than about yours. This is the "explain it away" defense mechanism. No, we aren't talking about either of those reactions here. The first is born of low self-esteem; the second is born out of a denial. What we are talking about here can only be practised by people with a high degree of self-awareness and self-acceptance. This means most conversations can be processed in transactional terms (looking for information of value in the immediate situation, the robbery being navigated in this case) rather than getting sidetracked protecting your fragile ego from poisoned barbs being shot at you by inconsequential people. Had Williamson been in that mode, he might have missed the clue to the burglary while his mind was furiously occupied defending a self-image.

Watch Glengarry Glen Ross. You won't regret it, I promise.

Share this email:

Contact Us: