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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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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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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Decisiveness and Leadership

If there is one thing that defines a leader, it is decisiveness.  This is that indispensable ability to weigh the facts, select a course of action, then execute it at the right moment.  When the heat is on and somebody needs to act, it is the leader who looks at everything, makes a plan, and moves forward without looking back.

Chuck Missler, US Naval Academy grad (class of 1956, pictured above), once said, “Weak men hurt people.”  He made this statement in 1982, at a gathering where he spoke on business ethics.  Chuck made his living as a professional executive in the Defense and semiconductor industries for over thirty years.  He happened to be teaching a group of Christians to be ethical and stable in their business dealings.  Chief among these qualities are decisiveness and keeping one’s word.  “The sanctity of a commitment” was a value he saw in short supply after leaving the executive suite.  At the time of this talk, he was CEO of Western Digital Corporation, a proven leader with ballast.

You will never get anywhere being wishy-washy.  Vacillation and inability to come to a decision are fatal to leadership.  In contrast, people will follow someone who knows where he is going and knows how to get there.  And with dispatch, knowing that time is too precious to waste with “analysis paralysis.”

When the pressure’s on, the leader cannot afford to buckle.  Time, money, confidence, respect; all are lost when someone positioned to do the right thing can’t make a decision or takes too much time doing so.

It is far better to make ten decisions and have seven of them prove to be good decisions rather than to wait and wait and only make two good decisions.  The reason is that although both decisions turned out to be good, the effect of waffling has compromised your influence.  Playing it safe often makes your followers feel unsafe.    Why can’t he make up his mind?  Are we staying or going?

Your high calling as a leader—whether as a husband, business leader, captain of a sports team, etc.–means being decisive.  You cannot afford to be ambivalent in the clutch.  It is charming when we watch “Fiddler on the Roof” and see it with Tevye the Dairyman.  In real life, vacillating is uninspiring at best and dangerous at worst.  It certainly doesn’t win our respect.

Being decisive and stable brings a host of benefits not only to the leader but to those who follow him or her.  You earn admiration.  You inspire those watching.  In the marketplace, if you can weigh the facts and act quickly, you’re worth more money than those who can’t.  If you’re a military leader, you will undoubtedly save more lives than you lose.

Here’s the challenge.  This next month, make a calculated effort to make quicker decisions.  Do this with anything from where to go out to eat to vacation plans to starting a new growth project, like a blog or exercise program.  Weigh the evidence, do a cost/benefit analysis and then act.

You’re going to be pleasantly surprised.

 

Suggested Resources:

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (Chip & Dan Heath)

Decisiveness: An Essential Guide to Mastering the Decision Making Process to Quickly Move Forward in Life on the Best Possible Path (Sergio Craig)

 

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Wisdom from the Oracle of Omaha

Warren Buffett, arguably the world’s greatest investor, when considering an investment tends to look at and stay within what he calls his “circle of competencies.”  He learned this concept from Thomas Watson, founder of IBM.  Watson said, essentially, “I don’t know everything but what I know I know.  And I tend to operate within my circle of competency.”

When Buffett first met fellow billionaire Bill Gates in 1991, he declined to invest in computer technology, specifically Intel and Microsoft.  He didn’t know computers, simple as that.  (He later invested heavily in Bill and Melinda Gates and their philanthropic ventures.)

Bill Gates knows computers.  Henry Ford knew cars.  Gene Simmons knows rock and roll branding.  Warren Buffett knows chewing gum, soft drinks, insurance and textiles, among other things.  These successful men stayed and stay within what they know.  And they profit doing so.

What are your circle of competencies?  What things do you know better than the average bear?  Buffett tells potential job seekers to seek a job they would do if money were no option.  Corollary to that he likens the résumé building approach to career development the equivalent of saving sex for old age.  It misses the point.

Here are some things to think about when evaluating your circle of competencies:

  • What do you find yourself thinking about and pursuing when off the clock?
  • What ignites your passion—what subjects and pursuits? Dead giveaway on that one is your body language.  Your eyes fire, your pulse increases, you get excited and it’s obvious to those who know you.
  • What do you read about that is not part of some school or work assignment? Same goes for viewing and listening.

Challenge:  Focus on what lights you up and genuinely interests you—whether the pursuit is popular or not.  Then start doing deep dives in these areas.  You’ll be surprised how far you can go with them.

 

Suggested Reading:

Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist (Roger Lowenstein)

Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, 1966-2013 (Carol J. Loomis)

 

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Drive and Initiative

When you were growing up, did you hear this question (I bet you did)?  “Why do you have to wait for me to tell you to clean up your room?”  One or both parents would make this nagging request.  Yeah, I thought it would bring back memories.

What were our parents trying to do?  Were they just bored and looking for something to gripe about, harping on us, making our lives unpleasant?  No.

What they were trying to mold in us was this:  Initiative.  Self-discipline.  Drive.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years and realize that the difference between excellence and mediocrity boils down to whether one is a self-starter or has to be told, constantly, what is the next step in any given enterprise or series of tasks.

Understand this:  Your boss, like your parents, can spot initiative.  And initiative taken, even if the performance is not up to speed, gets favorable attention from those who are in positions to help us.  The opposite is true as well.  Our betters can spot laziness and a “just enough to get by” attitude a mile away.

I studied French for six years in high school and college.  One phenomenon I’ve heard about a few times comes from people who’ve either visited France or Quebec.  The French are notoriously jealous of their native tongue.  And they should be for it is a beautiful language.  Those who take the initiative to try and communicate in French with native French speakers, even if their own skills are marginal, often have the reward of the French trying to help them, honored that someone took time and effort to try.  Such initiative has an ingratiating quality about it.

Here’s the challenge:  Find something in your job, your vocation, your home, wherever, that you can do without being asked.  And then make a habit of this.  “It’s not my job” must not be within a million miles of your credo.  You are meant for far more than that.  And the habit for doing more than is expected will be rewarded.

Remember, people are watching.  Up the ante.

 

Suggested Resources:

A Team of Leaders: Empowering Every Member to Take Ownership, Demonstrate Initiative, and Deliver Results (Paul Gustavson & Stewart Liff)

The Go-Getter: A Story That Tells You How To Be One (Peter B. Kyne)

 

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