Questions Can Help You Listen Better

There are solid strategic reasons to ask questions.
A few examples:

  • Questions help you shift conversational gears.  They confirm that you, and whomever you’re speaking with, share enough information or understanding to move on.
  • Questions encourage the speaker to stop wandering and focus on what’s important.
  • Questions can help you get reengaged in a conversation that feels boring. They can help you resist an impulse to start lecturing or acting on an untested assumption.

When you’re ready to shift gears it’s important to be sure all parties feel they’re understood.

One of the reasons so many conversations loop back to feelings or data already covered—a prime reason for boredom and frustration—is a feeling that the other person doesn’t really understand your position. Ask questions to keep the conversation moving forward:

  • Is there something you’re saying that you’d like to be sure I understand? I’ll tell you what I heard and you can let me know if I’ve got what you’re saying.
  • Would it be helpful for me to summarize the points I think are important? I don’t want to keep going if we don’t understand each other.
  • Any part of what I said that you’d like to ask a question about? Or conversely: Can I ask you a couple of specific questions to be certain I understand what you think is important?

Questions can focus the conversation on what’s important.

Conversations have a tendency to wander unless at least one person keeps bringing attention to (talking or asking about) focusing on the important aspects. Questions are a way to help the other person focus:

  • Is there a specific part of what you said that you’d like to underline for me?
  • I have a couple of specific questions, is this a good time to ask them?
  • Is this a good time to summarize what I’ve heard to be sure I’ve got it?

Questions can help you refocus when you’re bored or even when you’re tired of taking the high road and are tempted to just join the other person in pushing your opinion without listening.

Formulating a question encourages you to strategize about how to influence the conversation to get focused, get shorter, or to lean in a direction that is more interesting to you. Questions engage your thinking brain and can help quiet your emotional brain—boredom is an emotional state and impulsive interruptions reflect low emotional regulation.

  • I’d be interested in how what you’re saying might affect how we relate to current clients?
  • Is there a way we can make practical use of this data?
  • What do you think would be the potential timing, if we were to introduce this idea to our teams? I find I’m worried about diminishing our focus on …

The impact of all these questions is based you being truly curious. Questions that are disguised statements—I.e., I think… don’t you agree?—are typically nowhere near as effective in influencing a conversation. Looking for an aspect of the conversation that truly sparks your curiosity may take effort, but can pay big rewards in increased loyalty and creativity of team members, clients who stick with you, and a wider network of people who trust you are someone who listens well.

Questions also let you discover small, important tweaks that can improve you services, products, and client satisfaction. More on this in a future article.

Asking questions can be efficient and respectful. You can move conversations along, while helping your conversation partner feel good about you. Being conversationally efficient, while being respectful isn’t easy, but it is something you can learn. Having difficult conversations can be easier when you know how to ask good questions.

If you’d like to learn how to craft questions and how to ask curious questions more often, why not call or email us? Increasing your positive connection with your team may be just a few question marks away.

How and Why to Bite Your Tongue

Don’t interrupt. It’s obvious; we know. Still it’s very difficult.  I speak from personal experience—after decades of paying attention to how important it is to wait until the other person is finished, I often cut them off anyway. I find it especially difficult to remember around friends and family.

According to Deborah Tannen, the linguist and author, some of us—me included—have a “high involvement” communication style. We “overlap” the other person’s speech. This can work—if the person you’re talking with has a similar style. And if what they’re talking about is more informational than deeply emotional.

Others have a “high considerateness” style. These people generally seek more clear pauses and want more order to the conversation.

Talking when you should be listening. Teaching when learning would serve you better.

In most cases it would be more respectful and helpful if I listened, instead of talked and learned, instead of tried to teach.

Why do we interrupt?

It can be helpful to identify what causes your interruptions:

•Are you trying to be supportive? To show you understand what the speaker is saying?
•Are you feeling crunched for time? Trying to move the conversation along?
•Are you more interested in sharing what you know rather than learning?
•Are you trying to show your expertise? Prove something?
•Are you worried that you’ll forget what you were going to say, if you wait until the other person is finished speaking?

Some things to try:

1. Notice when you interrupt

When you cut someone off, stop (even mid-sentence) and say something like: “sorry; I really want to hear what you have to say.” (This new habit will take time to develop and some courage.)

2. Enlist family or friends to help

Ask people you trust to respectfully remind you when you’ve cut them off. Ask for a do-over.

3. Create a cue to remind yourself

Sometimes sticky notes can help-in your car, on your bathroom mirror, at your desk at work. Find a word or phrase that you’ll be comfortable with others seeing—maybe “listen” or “pause.”

4. Track your progress

Initially just notice and count the number of times each day that you interrupt someone.
After a week or so, set a realistic goal and acknowledge your progress.
Some people find that self-acknowledgment works even better coupled with a reward.

When we click off or tune out before we’re sure we’ve heard and understand the speaker’s entire message, we cut ourselves off from some potentially useful information or insights. And, interrupting is not only disrespectful to the person being interrupted, but hurts you as the leader or manager. Sure, some of your team may be thick-skinned and more Teflon like. Others, though, will be put off and therefore less productive, loyal, or creative. Call or email us if you want to increase your positive connection with your team or just plain want to improve your listening skills.

Comfort Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Most likely your natural tendency is to sidestep uncomfortable emotions, painful physical sensations, cognitive challenges and/or social exertion. But those discomforts are often signals that you’re pushing yourself into areas of positive growth with a level of intensity that will lead to actual progress.

In endurance sports this discomfort is called suffering. Some of that suffering comes from the physical pain that your body generates as you approach the limits of your current capability. As you strain, your muscles generate waste and collect minor tears. After your effort is completed, the tears will signal the healing forces to rebuild with additional capacity to avoid future tears.

We now understand that some—or perhaps much—of the pain sensation is also generated by the fail-safe concerns of our brain. It senses that, if we continue to do what we’re doing, we risk exceeding our body’s abilities to intake oxygen, deliver fuel, and clear out waste materials. The pain sensation is an alert that we should shut off our effort to preserve crucial blood flow to our brains. The problem is that this warning comes earlier than necessary and, if we heed it too soon, it inhibits us from our highest level of effort and eventually diminishes our maximum performance.

In non-physical areas, your brain also protects you from danger with early and overblown warnings about threats. It flashes discomfort and pain signals when there are opportunities for growth. For instance, when there is a possibility that you will need to give up an established pattern of behavior in order to make a change or challenge your comfort zone.
Each time you strive to stop an old habit or start a new one, you will likely come face to face with some level of discomfort—some minor “tear” in your routine. In order to change you will need to ignore the easy path of following your old habit and push against your discomfort. You may need to welcome the experience of social embarrassment and confront someone, push against the call of a sweet treat in order to change your eating habits, get to a gym class when you’re feeling hollow and lethargic, or resist the pull of something more entertaining when you should be exercising or working on a project.
How much discomfort are you willing to push through? If the answer is none, then you aren’t likely to change. Just a little bit? You may make a bit of progress. A few brave souls will answer in the affirmative when they ask themselves, “Am I willing to suffer for a significant increase in my performance?”
Choosing to suffer isn’t complex or difficult, but it also isn’t easy. And we are not suggesting that there is any significant value in suffering for suffering sake. Given that you will face feelings of discomfort many times a day, and will on occasion suffer, you should know that you will suffer less if you welcome discomfort as a necessary ingredient in improving your performance.
There is suffering that leads to no valuable end. There is suffering that we might wish to avoid, but which leads to healing. And there is suffering that is simply the best pathway to enhanced performance. Avoid that discomfort and you will keep doing what you have always done. Embrace it and you will dare to push yourself enough to cause your body, emotions or mind to gain increased capacity.
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In growing your business, a healthier life, or deeper relationships you will benefit from having effective strategies to help you deal with discomfort and gain the maximum value from any investment you make in suffering. Don’t suffer needlessly. But also don’t avoid opportunities to grow and feel significant satisfaction and benefits from your efforts. We can help you invest your energy wisely.

Encouraging Positive Behavior

People need people. This was brought to my attention again when Jay was reading Deep Survival a book about the attitudes and behaviors that survivors of accidents and natural disasters exhibit. Many lost adults don’t stay still so that they can be found during a grid search. They keep moving in an apparent attempt to reconnect with other people—anything but spending time alone. To be seen is to feel alive, safe and significant.

There is often a similar longing to be seen in the work environment. Team members want and need acknowledgments as much as lost hikers. It is necessary to pay employees, but that isn’t sufficient to motivate the best critical thinking or creativity. One of the techniques leaders need to develop is the ability to make a team member feel seen at a time that encourages them to repeat a positive action, attitude or effort.

Here are some ways to give a little acknowledgment in everyday situations:

Brighten just a bit each time a person looks at you and they will tend to look again. Jay and I use this technique to get people to focus on me when they’re talking to a group. And conversely you can look down or look away to encourage them to address someone else.

Say “Thank You!” when people give you tough feedback and they will tend to continue the behavior of daring to risk your displeasure.

Acknowledge a project or task that is completed on time and the positive attention will tend to nudge the employee toward getting the next one done on time.

Say a cheerful “Good Morning” right away when a chronically tardy employee shows up on time and you’re more likely to see a bit more on-time behavior.

If you work for someone, you might try completing a project early when it’s handed out early and holding it back until the last minute when it’s given to you late. This is different from the traditional “passive-aggressive” attitude because you’re working toward a solution that is intended to help both of you. You just need to be very clear that the goal is a smoother working relationship, not just one that satisfies you.

Say hi to team members as if they’re the one you’re pleased to see and they will more likely act like someone you want to see.

Positive feedback, smiles and noticing others’ constructive behaviors, all increase the odds of a repeat performance.

For more ways to increase your effectiveness and influence the outcomes you’re looking for, please call us at 978-446-9600 or email us.

Jay’s book Simple Steps to Change: Your Business, Your Life is a good resource, with lots of ideas, as well. You can read parts of it or purchase it on Amazon.