Listening is one of the most important communication tools we have. In fact, it’s one of the only two requirements for actually having a conversation — the other being it’s far more popular teammate: talking.
But even when we do listen, most of us listen with the intent of responding, not with the intent of understanding. In other words, we’re thinking about the next thing we’re going to say. That’s not listening. Sometimes really listening means more than being quiet while other people talk. You have to be looking for the meaning in what the other person is saying and doing.
A wonderful and underappreciated tool to help you do that is asking questions. In fact, I would argue that asking good questions is less a form of talking than it is a form of listening. A lovely example of how to do that well comes from Dan Ball, a brand narrative designer in London.
A Probing Question at the Pub
Dan was having lunch at one of his favorite pubs in Greenwich with a good friend, a struggling illustrator who lives with his grandmother. As Dan describes him, “If you want to find him, you’d probably be disturbing him at whatever time you call. He locks himself away in his home studio and works strange hours on satirical pieces of art.” So he obviously has a high degree of passion for what he does.
During lunch, the topic of work inevitably came up, and Dan started shared what he was working on. He told me, “I spent a good deal of time sharing the projects I was most excited about. And he was very happy to join in and ask questions along the way. But when I turned the conversation to him and asked how his projects were coming along, all he said was, ‘I’ve been working on a new technique to add more texture to my illustrations.’ And he left it at that.”
Here we arrive at a critical point in the conversation. Dan could have filled the silence by returning to one of his projects. And that’s what many of us would do, return to our favorite topic—ourselves. But that would be talking, not listening. To get his friend to do the talking, Dan knew his best tool was to ask a probing question. A good listener, then, might ask his friend to say more about this new technique: Like, “How exactly does that technique work?” or “What kind of texture does it add?” or “How did you discover it?”
But a great listener can ask an even more probing question. And Dan, it turns out, is a great listener. Dan noticed that recently when he asked about his friend’s work, the answers have gotten shorter and shorter. So he responded,
Why do you rush through telling me about achievements that I know are important to you?” And he immediately knew that he’d asked the right question.
Dan told me, “His eyes moved from me and the conversation to something in the distance, and then back again. And his lips started to quiver as if what I said hit a chord. No longer holding back, he told me, ‘Well, living with my Nan . . . she doesn’t quite understand what I do or why I even do it. So when I get a new client or work with someone of interest or I win an award, I have to share it really quickly. If I don’t, she just looks confused and loses interest. I guess I’ve gotten in the habit of doing that now.’ ” And that, of course, took the conversation in an entirely new and probably more important direction for the two men.
Asking the right questions is a powerful listening tool. But, as Dan explains, “You can only ask the right questions if you’re truly listening to what the person is saying.” So the two feed off one another. “And truly listening,” he continues, “doesn’t just mean listening to the words that are coming out. It’s observing their body language as well. When they get agitated or show some flecks of emotion, that’s when you see some little tics in their behavior. I think that’s what truly listening is. It’s seeing people’s tics and asking questions about them.”
So, if listening is something you or the young person in your life struggle with (and who doesn’t), try asking more questions in the conversations you have every day. You’ll be amazed how quickly you’ll lose interest in your own favorite topic (you!) and how much more fascinating and important the people you talk to will become.
As with all of these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
1. How is asking questions more like listening than like talking?
2. Have you ever told someone really important to you that you wanted to talk about something, but they just turned the conversation to themselves or another subject and never asked you any questions? How did that make you feel?
3. How does it make you feel when someone asks you questions about your life and what’s important to you?
4. How can you tell when someone doesn’t want to talk about something and maybe it’s a good idea to just move on to another topic?
Source: Parenting with a Story: Real-life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share, by Paul Smith.
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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