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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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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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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Teddy Roosevelt on Courage

“A soft, easy life is not worth living, if it impairs the fibre of brain and heart and muscle. We must dare to be great; and we must realize that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage… For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.”

(Theodore Roosevelt)

 

Suggested Resources:

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Morris)

The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses (Theodore Roosevelt)

 

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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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Words of Wisdom from Gene Simmons’s Mom

Flora Klein is a lovely, Hungarian woman.  She is on in years.  Born in 1927, she is ninety this year.  Jewish, she survived the death camps of the Third Reich.  To say she is quite a remarkable lady is an exercise in understatement.

As a fourteen-year-old girl, she watched her mother and grandmother go to their deaths.  Her grandmother was given the death sentence and her daughter—Flora’s mother—did not want her mother to face death alone and made the incredible decision to join her in death.  A profoundly moving example of sacrifice and selflessness in the face of evil.

Having survived the horrors of the war, she emigrated to Israel.  There, she married  a carpenter and had a son, Chaim, in 1949.  Her husband eventually left the family and left mother and son to fend for themselves.

In 1958, Flora and Chaim journeyed to America to forge a new life, as have done many Jews over the past century or more.

They settled in New York.  Chaim grew up and took his mother’s name, Klein, and exchanged his Hebrew name for Eugene, or “Gene” for short.  Gene Klein.

Gene—still “Chaim” to his mother—received all his direction, nurture, and inspiration from his mother.  It is no exaggeration to say that Gene worships the ground his mother walks on.  Not his father; his mom.  Mention her and ask him to talk about her and he tears up.

Gene was trained in rabbinic Judaism at a New York yeshiva and eventually worked as a New York City school teacher.  He was a young musician and pursued that, his mother cheering him on.  Eventually he formed a group with his friend Stanley Eisen.  He and Stanley changed their names.  Now they are known as Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.  You’ve probably figured out that Israeli-born Chaim Witz is Gene Simmons of the rock group KISS.

Gene eventually went on to superstardom in the entertainment industry.  In recent years, he’s gotten into many different business ventures—some as startups rooted in KISS®, the brand.  Others are independent enterprises.

A few years ago, when asked on the Canadian talk show The Hour (minute 11:10) where he got his inspiration to be a success in so many fields, he answered without hesitation, “My mother.”  He began to choke up as he told the audience he wished she could be a part of all their lives.

His advice:  If you want inspiration, look to your mom.  She’s his inspiration to this moment.

He spoke of the time he got his first $10,000,000.00 (yes, that much) check—a one lump sum—as a return on his work with KISS.  He brought the check to his mother, wanting her to be proud of him.  “Mom, look at this.”

She said, in her broken English, “V’wonderful (pronounced VWAHN-dare-fool).  V’wonderful…..Now what are you going to do?”

Superstardom.  A ten-million-dollar check.  “Now what are you going to do?” Are you serious?

“Precisely the point,” says Gene.  One doesn’t rest on yesterday’s accomplishments.  Tomorrow is a new day.  What will you do to better yourself?  How can you improve what you do?

This is timeless—and distinctly Jewish—advice and perspective.  How about you?  Are you going to rest on yesterday’s successes?  Or worse, are you going to give up because of yesterday’s failures and disappointments?  Or will you value the gift of life and make the most of it that is possible?

Not sure?  Ask Chaim.  Better yet, ask his mother.

 

Suggested Resources:

The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement (Steven L. Pease)

The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)

 

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