London Review of Books: Listening Room

Came across this letter in a recent LRB, which, despite showing a politician I mostly loathe in faintly positive light, does nail one Monty Pythonesque aspect of business life. The “difficult” person may actually be the one who is listening.

From the London Review of Books

Thatcher or Williams

Writing about Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher a while back, a permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education who served both described the two as complete opposites of each other (LRB, 19 December 2013). When you entered Williams’s office she would welcome you and be very interested in what you had to say. As you talked she would put her head on one hand, look very hard at you and drink in every word. She could not have been more sympathetic. Thatcher, on the other hand, was never very pleased to see you and when you said, ‘Minister, there’s something I must say,’ she would reply: ‘Do you absolutely have to?’ She would listen with an angry look as you tried to persuade her of the folly of one of her policies and at the end she would shout that it was all rubbish and handbag you.

However, the next day you would notice that Thatcher had accepted some or all of your recommendations and now considered them her own, whereas Williams never altered what she had decided in the first place. She had given you tea and sympathy but had refused to hear a word: Thatcher had given you hell but had allowed your words to percolate through.

R.W. Johnson
Cape Town


Dilbert has also noted a version of this phenomena, as is his wont:


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