The Art of Listening: Ask Good Questions

The Art of Listening - Ask Good Questions

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask. For once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

–Albert Einstein

I once asked a student of the late Dr. Edwin Friedman, marriage and family therapist, why Friedman was so effective in his practice and writings. The answer: “Friedman was a rabbi and rabbis deal in questions, not answers. I ask questions so I can get to better questions.”

Dale Carnegie taught that one sure way to win a friend is to start a conversation, ask questions of the other, then get out of the way and let them speak. People love it when they get a chance to talk about themselves—what they like, dislike, and what is important to them. The questions draw people out and put them in the spotlight. Again, it’s about less airtime for you and more for them.

Questions, rather than pontificating and unsolicited opinions, are a mark of humility. Nobody likes a know-it-all. By asking questions, we are communicating that we don’t have life solved and want to learn more. Cultivating the habit of asking questions locates us as curious individuals, something that is less common than you think.

This habit of questioning is not reserved for head-to-head conversations but also includes reading. Yes, when you read intelligently you are engaging another person even if they’ve been dead for centuries. In the classic book How to Read a Book, the authors teach that to read well—and not simply read—one must ask the right questions of the text. You don’t ask of A Brief History of Time what you’d ask of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or a Garfield cartoon. The authors teach us how. The same thing is true when we talk with the person in front of us. Ask, then be quiet and pay attention.

Here are some starters. More in future posts:

  • “So, tell me your story—why did you move here rather than….?”
  • “Where can a guy like me get decent Italian food in this [new] city?”
  • For clarification, use paraphrases like, “Okay, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying….?”
  • When one of your direct reports blunders badly and you don’t want a homicide on your record, “Can you please help me try to understand what led you to do thus-and-so?”

Suggested Resources:

Friedman’s Fables (Edwin H. Friedman)

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action (Simon Sinek)

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (Mortimer Adler & Charles Van Doren)

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Arm’s Reach and Your Life’s Direction

Arm's Reach and Your Life's Direction

If somebody puts Mint Creme Oreos on our kitchen counter, I will eat them. Why? Because they’re there. I will also put on weight and my blood sugar will get jacked out of proportion. Rarely will I win the battle to say “no.” After all, they’re small, taste so good, and they’re there.

Jonathan Cawte calls this the Law of Food Proximity. Briefly, “If you can see it, smell it, or reach it, you will eat it.”

In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear—chapter 6 “Motivation Is Overrated; Environment Often Matters More”—tells the story of Anne Thorndike, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who wanted to change the eating habits of staff and visitors to the hospital. She and her colleagues did this by designing a six-month experiment in “choice architecture” in the hospital cafeteria. By simply adding bottled water to the refrigerators next to the cashiers, which had previously contained only soft drinks, and positioning additional bottles of water in spots all over the cafeteria, they saw a soda sales decline of 11.4 percent and an increase in bottled water sales of 25.8 percent. This is the power of proximity. More water + less soda = healthier staff and guests.

We tend to make choices based on physics—location—rather than ideals. It’s easier. Advertisers know this and design grocery store layouts strategically to leverage this basic human tendency. Why do you think the Kit-Kat bars are staring at you while you wait in the checkout line?

What and who you have close at hand will largely determine the life you live. Jim Rohn has said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The choices in food, friends, function, and fun at your arm’s length are worth knowing and designing intentionally.

Here are some practical suggestions to design your environment for the outcomes you want:

  • Keep healthy foods in reach and in sight. Put junk food, if you have it, in a place where you must stand on tiptoes or a chair to reach it. Your brain will often translate that little bit of effort into, “Too much work. Just eat a piece of fruit.”
  • Keep exercise equipment out and close at hand. I telecommute and keep dumbbells in my home office two feet from my desk. They’re there, so I lift every day.
  • Put an app on your smartphone to limit time on social media. Constant nibbles on Facebook and Instagram are about as healthy as constant nibbles on the Oreos.
  • If you’re a musician, keep your instrument out of the case where you can grab it quickly. Even a little practice, done daily, adds up. I always keep a guitar out and on a stand.
  • Choose your social environments, and therefore your friends, wisely. A lot of our friends have become so simply because of proximity. Same workplace, same watering holes, same church and civic groups.

Suggested Resources:

Outliers: The Story of Success (Malcolm Gladwell)

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (David Allen)

The Magic of Thinking Big (David J. Schwartz)

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Listening and Closing the Sale

listening - how to close the sale“When somebody comes to me and wants to sell me something, whether it’s Fuller brushes, a political position or whatever, the first thing I ask myself is, ‘Does this person know how to listen?’”

A mentor of mine—a licensed marriage and family therapist—taught me this important principle back in 2014. I’ve found it very helpful. Here’s why.

If you’re constantly talking, making noise, and transmitting, you cannot receive from another. Simple physics—you’re dominating the airwaves. Not listening and hearing the other before you is more costly than you think.

Consider this. A doctor, when he or she takes you on as a new patient, asks you many questions both on the intake forms and in the exam room. Why? Doctors do this because they cannot make accurate diagnoses without getting at least basic (or, preferably, extensive) health history information about you. An expert diagnostician must be a good listener—no shortcuts on this one. And to be a good listener means being quiet and paying attention. This is the standard in health care but also in other helping professions like law, therapy, spiritual direction and social care.

We’ve all had the experience of being with someone who had something they wanted to sell us or bring us into and they did so by being a talking head. They had a spiel they needed to present and didn’t want to be bothered with questions and input from you, the buyer. If you’re attentive, you figure out that they are not really interested in serving you but in closing the sale.

That is where you simply say “No thank you, that won’t work for me.” Why? Because they’ve not listened carefully and respectfully enough to know what you really need.

Put yourself in the role of the seller. What can you do to avoid these mistakes and show genuine care for the person you’re trying to help?

  • Be the last to speak. Let the buyer tell you what they want if you’re selling. Let your subordinates share their ideas about new company direction before you give your proposal. This was the practice of Nelson Mandela’s father, a tribal chief (see the video below).
  • Value the person before you as a person more than as an impersonal target that you can use as a sounding board or as income.
  • In relationships, understand that it’s usually the hearing of the other—rather than giving bullet-point solutions to problems—that brings the healing of the other. If you’ve been married a while, you probably know this. When people feel they’ve been heard, they are open to you and what you have to bring them.

Suggested Resources:

The Making of a Surgeon (William A. Nolen)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Susan Cain)

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How Not to Fool Yourself

 

how not to fool yourself

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” 

–Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist

Have you ever listened to someone drone on and on about a topic, displaying incredible confidence in their knowledge about the subject, and yet you knew they were full of crap and in over their heads?

You may have witnessed The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is named after a Cornell University study done in 1999 by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The study is about self-awareness and incompetence. Roughly summed up, it says incompetent persons often display disturbing levels of self-confidence and superiority because they lack the ability to 1) recognize competence and expertise and therefore 2) are unaware of their own incompetence. That’s why we have YouTube and reality television “celebrities” who can’t see that they are not in reality what they are in their heads.

It sucks to admit you suck at something. But those affected by the Dunning-Kruger Effect are blissfully unaware of how little they know. This has consequences for lots of people. It is not surprising that Google searches for the Dunning-Kruger Effect have increased quite a bit in the past three years. You can do the math on that one.

So how do you avoid the trap of thinking you are better at something than you really are? Here are some tips:

  • Read, listen and view widely on your work, interests, hobbies and passions. Assume that your knowledge is deficient and needs regular updates and additions. Be committed to continuous learning in every form.
  • Get feedback on those things you’re working on. These might include things like photography, sports, writing, performing and fine arts, leadership, finance, etc. It’s best if the feedback you seek is objective and searching. Your mom and dad will always love your art work but seek the critique of a professional artist if you want to improve. A pro who cares will tell you if your work is lacking and how to improve. A loved one who did well with his investments told me, more than once, “When you have money, go to those who understand money; don’t go to your friends.
  • Set the bar high. Look to the best of the best and follow their advice and practices. When I’m studying classical guitar, I listen to Andrés Segovia. When I’m trying to improve my writing, I pay attention to Stephen King. When I’m trying to improve my leadership and self-differentiation skills, I go to Edwin Friedman. For investment advice, it’s Warren Buffett.

This is first in a series of posts that will deal with ways in which we regularly fool ourselves and how to avoid them. We’ll help each other avoid the banana peels.

Suggested Resources:

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself (David McRaney)

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (Richard P. Feynman)

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Showing Up or Phoning It In?

showing up or phoning it in

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1988, I was hired as the sole manager of a full-line bakery in Upstate New York. I was twenty-four years old and newly married. The owner of the bakery lived a hundred miles away. We did business twenty-four hours a day, 364 days a year. We closed for Christmas; that was it. I was on call always. I learned to get on well with fatigue, my constant buddy.

I learned a lot during the two and a half years I managed the business. One lesson I learned early was the importance of your attitude toward your work, however menial or apparently insignificant. That first year I had one particular employee who worked the counter as one of our bakery clerks. This lady was bright, but not very motivated to keep busy in her tasks, which included waiting on customers and preparing baked goods for the showcases. She told me one day, “When I get a real job, then I will work hard.” (Apparently preparing and selling food, a basic life necessity, didn’t qualify as real work.) Eventually she moved on.

That is the one thing I remember about her. She came to work but she didn’t show up. She punched the clock and did minimal enough work to ensure she didn’t get fired. But she didn’t try. Her attitude colored everything. I’ve wondered a lot over three decades where she ended up in life.

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. The best you can. We cheat ourselves and our colleagues when we give the least amount of effort necessary rather than being a professional and acting like it.

Here’s a few reality checks that will help you:

  • What is your attitude as you approach work? Is it engaged and focused, or passive and listless? Trust me, those to whom you report or who report to you can tell the difference.
  • With your tasks, how attentive are you to the details? It’s in the details that excellence and mediocrity part ways. Take the time to do it right. The first time.
  • Are you committed to continuous learning and improvement in your work or do you stay only as current as you need to keep afloat? Doing the latter will catch up with you, eventually; doing the former will serve you.

Suggested Resources:

Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life  (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

The Success Principles(TM) – 10th Anniversary Edition: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (Jack Canfield with Janet Switzer)

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The Art of Listening: Talk Less

the art of listening - talk less

Hi. My name is Christian and I suck at listening.

There, I said it.

The late biblical scholar William Lane used to say, “The best way to show someone you love them is to listen to them.” One of his protégés, biblical scholar and music artist Michael Card, certainly remembered that one.

He was right, of course. You show you care about another person by listening to them. By hearing them. When people feel they’ve been heard, they feel valued and validated.

Maybe you’re like me and lots of others. We get a little too thrilled by the sound of our own voices. A little too impressed with our brilliance. So, of course, we must turn such brilliance loose on the world. We do this with lots of words, domination of our conversations, pontificating ad nauseam, etc. We interrupt, assemble responses while the other is talking to us, talk over the top of their words. That’s how people talk past each other. And that’s happening a lot these days.

I am guilty. Of all of it.

This is the first of a series of posts I’ll be doing here at The Upside on the importance of listening. Feel free to stop by while I try to get this right. I’m preaching to myself.

So what is the first step to learning the art of listening?

Talk less.

That’s it. Reduce word count. Diminish air time. The document I’m typing right now has a word count to it. We don’t really do the same with our speech, at least not without a whole lot of work, say recording yourself for a certain time period and getting a transcript of everything coming out of your mouth and reducing it to a word count. We’d be shocked and embarrassed by how much and how silly a lot of it is.

Try this. Next time you are in a conversation, pause three seconds before responding. Make it a game. Gee, I wonder how few words I can use to respond? Be like Ernest Hemingway was with prose, ruthlessly cutting away needless words.

More will follow. Here’s the promise: If you truly become a good listener, your stock will soar. Why? Good listeners, like diamonds, are rare.

Shhhhh.

 

Suggested Resources:

The Walk: The Life-Changing Journey of Two Friends (Michael Card)

The Lost Art of Listening, Second Edition: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships (Michael P. Nichols)

Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson (Mitch Albom)

The Chosen (Chaim Potok)

 

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