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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