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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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 Necessity of No

“The most basic boundary-setting word is no.”  So wrote Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their bestselling book, Boundaries.   Some people excel at saying “no.”  My wife is quite proficient at it.  Me?  Not so much.  But I’m learning.

I know a minister who requires those he’s going to marry to read Boundaries.  He said this book is the most important book to him outside the Bible.  And to prove it, he asked a prospective groom—to whom he’d assigned the book quite some time before—if he’d read the book.  This was Wednesday.  The wedding was on Saturday.  “Uh, no.  I haven’t gotten to it.”  “Well, you better get reading or I won’t marry you guys on Saturday.”

He read the book.  It’s a big deal.

One of the go-to sentences we use a lot these days, especially with those close to us when we cannot say yes is “they’ll just have to figure it out.”  We are defaulting to this more and more, with good reason.

If you don’t know how to say no to people, you are like a painted target.  Those who have a poor sense of boundary and propriety hone in on “really nice people” like an F-15 locking on to a target in war.

If you don’t learn how to say no, you will have a life of varied chaos.  You will allow yourself to be taken advantage of.  You will enable irresponsible behavior.  And with such enabling behavior comes burnout and a loss of self-respect.  I know.  I’ve been there more than I’d like to admit.

People say yes to all sorts of requests for lots of reasons, some good, others not.  Sometimes we say yes because we are generous people who want to help.  But if one’s tendency is to always say yes to some appeal, it’s unlikely that the motives are pure and good.

We often say yes because we feel guilty saying no.  We say yes because we want approval.  We say yes because we’re afraid our egos will suffer if we do otherwise.  We say yes because we are anxious.  Most of all, we default to yes because we lack a clear sense of self.  Edwin Friedman calls this self-differentiation.

When we say no.  When we are not quick to step in when someone has gotten into a jam, with all the attendant drama, we not only hurt ourselves, we hurt them.  There is something healthy and ennobling about letting someone “figure it out.”  It is in solving the problems of life, especially the kind we’ve brought on ourselves, that we grow.

So here’s a challenge.  Starting with small steps, begin to know when to say no.  And then say no.  One of our favorite forms of no is “I’m sorry, that just doesn’t work for me.” If your default setting is to say yes, you probably need to work on changing it to no.  Take a step back and be brutally honest with yourself.  “Will this really help them or is it just sparing me pain in the shortfall?”

 

Suggested Resources:

Friedman’s Fables (Edwin H. Friedman)

The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth (M. Scott Peck)

 

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Ask the Right Questions

“Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.” (Anthony Robbins)

I once asked one of the pupils of the late Dr. Edwin Friedman why his teacher was so effective as a Family Therapist.  His answer was telling.

“Ed Friedman was a rabbi.  And rabbis tend to deal in questions rather than answers.  I like to ask questions because they lead to better questions.”

One of the secrets of life is to ask the right questions of life, of people, of literature.  It’s known that one secret to successful comprehension of a book is that one must ask the right questions of the book.  You don’t ask of a science text, say A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking), what you would of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Here are some helpful questions you should be asking yourself:

  • What do I really want from my life? Corollary is do I know what it is to want versus having a passing interest in a thing?
  • Who do I spend the most time with? And is this helping me or hurting me? “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” (Jim Rohn)
  • Am I simply going with the flow of interest and information that floods the news and social media? Or do I take the time to get to the truth and separate as much fact, fiction and bias as I can?

There are other questions.  These will get us started.  More in the coming blogs.

 

Suggested Resources:

Friedman’s Fables (Edwin H. Friedman)

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

http://sourcesofinsight.com/day-20-ask-better-questions-get-better-results/

 

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A Failure of Nerve

A Failure of NerveThe book you see above this post is simply the best book on leadership that I have ever read.  Ever.

I read a lot.  A great deal of what I read devolves in some way upon leadership–autobiography, biography, leadership as art and craft, critical leadership arenas, failures of leadership and so forth.  This is a rich field as there are so many great authors and leaders.  The usual suspects: Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs, Douglas MacArthur, John Maxwell, Seth Godin, Warren Bennis and political leaders ad infinitum.  I’m sure you could assemble your own list of leaders and leadership mavens and their writings.  (Matter of fact, please load up the combox with your suggestions!)

Edwin Friedman was a rabbi and therapist who did most of his work in and around Washington, D.C. up until his death in 1996.  The strength of his work (his entire corpus comprises five volumes, two of which were published posthumously) is that leadership is ultimately a function of the leader himself/herself (hereafter his/him for the sake of brevity).

A Failure of Leadership gets at the essence of good leadership.  The focus of this book is on a leader’s self-leadership, rather than leadership techniques, punch lists, alliterations and the like.   The leader sets the tone in any environment by 1) maintaining a non-anxious presence in the midst of anxious and emotional people, whether family, congregation, business or government and 2) practicing his own inner leadership as a self-differentiated individual; that is, one who is clear about his goals, vision, purpose and values and is able to hold to them in a steady way, especially when times are tumultuous and the tendency to herd rears its head and threatens to pull him into its toxic vortex.  The self-differentiated leader is moved by reason–namely, his goals and values–rather than emotional current.

There is so much more to this book in general and Friedman’s work in particular that we will explore in future writings.  Topics such as orienting towards adventure rather than safety, focusing on personal responsibility and challenge and not simply “feeling another’s pain” (empathy).  Fodder for later posts.

Buy this book.  He wrote it during the Bush (41) and Clinton years–years in which he described our country and culture as anxious and stuck.  One can only imagine his response to our own times with the challenges of the post 9/11 world and ubiquitous social media which, at best, is a mixed blessing.

Stick around.  There’s more!

Further reading:

Friedman’s Fables

Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue

The Myth of the Shiksa and Other Essays

What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? Unpublished Writings and Diaries
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Life, Filtered…Through You

Life Filtered Through YouWe’ve all heard, at one time or another, that there are no two snowflakes alike.  Science has confirmed this.  It is estimated that there are something like ten quadrillion (that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000) water molecules that make up a snowflake.  Thus, while many snowflakes at the microscopic level appear to be similar, at the molecular level they are all different.

Which brings us to you.

You are unique, to say the least.  And so am I.  At the molecular level, to be sure, but in a number of other areas of involvement, measurement, comparison, etc.

What this means is that each one of us see the world in slightly different ways.  You and I have differing perspectives on everything from this morning’s global sell-off on the world financial markets to the fallout of the Ashley Madison web hack debacle.

We all see things differently.  It’s meant to be that way.

Put another way, we all are positioned in a unique way to see and filter everything locally, nationally and internationally, even cosmically, is different colors, shades, shapes, nuances.

One angle is your time in human history.  Another is your geographic placement (are you Oriental or Occidental?).  How about your embedding in the economic strata?  Your level of education provides you with special tools for this task as well.

The biggest variable is the questions you ask of people and of life.  The late Rabbi Dr. Edwin Friedman shared this anonymous quote before he died: “If you do not have answers, do not feel too badly.  But if you do not have questions, you had better feel your pulse.”  A mentor of mine once told me that he asks questions to get…answers? Wrong.  “To get to better questions.”  The Socratic Method is not going away anytime soon.

You have a place in this world for a reason.  You’re not an accident (I’m a theist.)  When you ask questions, when you speak up and out, you bring–unless you’re a parrot–something unique to the discussion, new light, slightly different perspectives and colors.  And when you do, people gain greater insight.  (Do you really want to leave this to the pundits, the intelligentsia, and mainstream news media on both sides?  I didn’t think so.)

So take life in.  Ask lots of pain in the backside questions of it.  And speak up!

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