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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