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.

Why You Should Listen More Than You Talk

Of the relationship-enhancing skills our clients practice getting better at, listening is often the one that makes the biggest difference—whether you’re trying to acquire or keep a client, solve a problem, or build a culture of productivity and autonomy.

Listening strategy number one—Listen more than you talk.

Why:

• If you understand what motivates people, you will understand how to more effectively influence them. You get that information by listening.

• People are more likely to listen carefully to you, if they know you have listened carefully to them.

• Everyone likes to be listened to. So listen and people will feel more positive, and that makes them more productive and open to new ideas.

• People virtually never get bored when they’re talking about themselves. In a conversation where you are listening to them, they will tend to remember you as interesting. And interesting makes you memorable.

But aren’t people paying to get my expertise; my answers to professional questions? Don’t they care if I’m well informed and knowledgeable? Yes, and:

• Yes, they are. And they can hear you best after they’re sure you understand them and what they’re concerned about. After they are convinced you respect and even care about them as individuals.

• Rebalancing your talking to listening ratio opens the door to people being able to hear your professional guidance.

But what if I’m getting bored?

• First remind yourself that this is about them not you. Then:

• Try asking a question. A truly curious question is a great demonstration that you’re listening. So ask and then listen some more.

What if they have misunderstood something and I need to correct it?

• Wait for them to stop talking—be certain it is a stop not just a pause.

• Then give them a quick update and ask if they want to know more about it. If they don’t, listen some more.

What if they ask a question?

• Give a brief answer.

Know that the odds are your brief answer is too long for them. Try making one quick point and ask if that answers their question.

The odds are also great that they didn’t make their real question clear or you misunderstood it to start with.
Primarily you need to remind yourself that a question shouldn’t change the ratio of listening to talking.

A heads up:

• Most people badly misjudge how much of the time they talk versus listen. Most men have a tendency to both talk more and judge their ratio of talk to listening more poorly than most women.

Practice:

• Consciously try to listen twice as much as you talk. If in doubt, you’re probably talking too much.

• Put a reminder in front of you.

“Listen more!” is one possibility.
“What subtle information did you miss?” Might tweak your awareness to listen more.
“Ask curious questions.” Is another possibility.
“Listened lately?” is a bit more in your face.

• Use your phone’s stopwatch function to track when you’re talking—start this with a trusted colleague or in team meetings and tell everyone what you’re doing. Your activity will remind everyone to only say what’s important, and to listen! Tracking any behavior tends to keep it more front and center in your mind.

Bottom Line:

You can virtually never get into trouble listening.

Want to be better than just not getting in trouble? Listen even some more. Our clients have told us that the active practice they get in meetings with us, as well as being accountable, has helped vastly increased their listening skills—resulting in more clients, more satisfaction among their team, and more pleasure for them going to work each day.

Call or email us if you think it would be useful to move your communication skills forward.