Asking to Listen

Earl R. Smith II, PhD
DrSmith@Dr-Smith.com
Dr-Smith.com

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Curiosity is an amazing trait. In fact, I admit to being intensely curious about curiosity. But then those of you who have read much of my writings will know that I am curious about almost everything. I have been known to go on extended campaigns – questioning everybody who will sit still for it about something or other that vexed me or simply drew my attention.
It is said that subtlety of perception is the hallmark of a mature mind. Children see things in black and white – mature adults perceive that the world is made up of myriad shades of gray. The wealth of experience which I encounter every day – by coming into contact with the people I do – allows me to access that subtle pallet and gain a better understanding of my own human experience. There is no substitute for the kindness of strangers – people who will take the time and make the effort to tell me what they think, what they have learned and what they believe. It’s those mature minds that help me the most – teach me the most – and help me grow the most.

If it was as easy as asking and receiving I suppose that I could approach other people as vending machines – I put in a token – ‘a question’ – and out pops the ‘answer’. A fortune telling machine I once saw in a carnival comes to mind. But, since other people rather than machines are involved and we are forced to use something as primitive as language in the process, it is not that simple. In fact, it is often a complex and challenging process to learn what someone actually thinks about an issue which is important to them. One thing I have learned is that the details of the process – the approach to asking – and the motivation behind the asking are as important as the question itself.

Over the years I have developed a number of guidelines that have helped me improve the ‘take’ from these curiosity-driven journeys. They focus on the purpose and process of asking.

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There is a TV commentator who is famous for his twenty paragraph questions which leave the guest with ten to twenty seconds to respond. He has become my model of what not to do when I am asking someone about something that either interests or vexes me.

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First to purpose: I believe that there are good and bad reasons for asking questions – productive and unproductive ones. The best reason to ask is that you are really interested in learning something important from this person – you are asking to listen. When I was doing research on self-sabotaging behaviors, I asked a whole range of questions. My first ones were centered on generating a list of the most common. Once I sorted out the list and identified the top twelve or so, I went back to people and asked them about their experiences with each. The responses were truly amazing. I would ask what amounted to a one paragraph question and get the equivalent of several pages of response. People took the time to think about my question and responded in a thoughtful and helpful way. I believe that they did so because they sensed that the questions were important to me and I was sincerely interested in what they thought.

At the other end of the spectrum are questions that are clearly instrumental – hidden invitations to a sales pitch. Read any book on sales technique and you will come across this strategy – generally in the first chapter. “Ask the question which will put your mark on the path to buying what you have to sell!” Of course, the problems with this approach is that it is 1) easy to detect, 2) manipulative, 3) degrading to the listener and 4) focused solely on the interests of the questioner – interests that do not directly relate to the focus of the question.

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Life should be no more than 1/3 business – since 1/3 is spent sleeping that leaves only 1/3 for other human experiences. Otherwise what is the difference between humans and oxen?

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For me the process of asking should open the opportunity to listen – and, by listening, learning. That is what I mean by asking to listen.

For that to be true you need to ask the whole person – not just the ‘elevator speech manifestation’ which you might meet at a networking event.1) By now it should be clear that the questions which I am focused on are not ‘fact finding’ or ‘discipline focused’. Gathering facts or professional opinions is a different process – dryer and more instrumentally direct. So the first challenge of asking is to know at least something about who you are asking – otherwise, how could you possibly correctly calibrate the response? The more you know about the person you are asking the better you will be able to understand their response. Many people skip over this step altogether – commoditizing people into broad categories. They end up asking children about what it is like to be an adult.

The second challenge is to avoid being instrumental or Machiavellian in your approach. First of all you are no Machiavelli. Second, instrumental people are like loudmouths with bad breath – it’s a good way to establish social distance. Ask about what you are interested in and ask those people who you suspect might be able to add to your understanding.

References   [ + ]

1. By now it should be clear that the questions which I am focused on are not ‘fact finding’ or ‘discipline focused’. Gathering facts or professional opinions is a different process – dryer and more instrumentally direct.
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