Nonprofits & NGOs

Stop Asking and Start Listening

Leadership and communication: what we can learn from not speaking.

I’ve long been skeptical of listening exercises. The purpose and benefits of what is frequently referred to as “active listening” seem obvious: Demonstrate respect, allow people physical and psychological space to say what they want, and don’t hog communication. When a colleague suggested that we add a listening exercise to a program we’re developing for the Annual Symposium on Communication and Communication-Intensive Instruction at Baruch College, I hesitated, wanting to know: To what end?

Within a week, I lost my voice due to severe laryngitis.

Losing my voice for several days was a fascinating exercise. I gleaned empathy for people who cannot speak, express themselves immediately, or yell for help. My biggest epiphany was around questions: I was distressed that I could not ask my husband about his day, what he was reading, or what he was telling me. I thought a lot about how questions express interest and how they also influence conversation. I realized that questions are about helping the person questioned be heard and better understood; they can also be about selfishly amplifying the voice of the questioner.

A question can shift focus and power: By asking a question, I may be expressing my thoughts, desires, and opinions. Asking a question can be an infiltration of power: I may, with a question, steer the conversation or story in a direction that I want it to flow, not necessarily the direction in which the speaker was headed. It can be a grab at control: When we ask a question, we are somewhat assured of the general frame of the response.

Granted, it is difficult to keep quiet and refrain from asking questions; we’re taught that expressing interest is commendable. We may very well be expressing a generosity to share information: You tell me, and I will tell you equally. But interrupting others to ask questions can be less an expression of interest and more of an expression of status. In fact, if we allow another to speak, we may feel subordinate. In his book Your Brain at Work, David Rock acknowledges the cognitive effort necessary for inhibition in conversation. Rock says that both keeping quiet and truly listening demand extra energy to suppress and process “the lack of autonomy you might now experience because someone else is making the choices” in a conversation.

In his excellent McKinsey Quarterly article, “The Executive’s Guide to Better Listening,” Bernard T. Ferrari describes a common archetype of a bad listener: “the Preambler”:

  • The Preambler’s windy lead-ins and questions are really stealth speeches, often intended to box conversation partners into a corner. Preamblers use questioning to steer the discussion, send warnings, or generate a desired answer. I remember a meeting with one Preambler, the chairman and CEO of a medical complex, who (by my watch) spent 15 minutes posing slanted questions and making rhetorical assertions that all supported a recommendation he wanted to make to his board. Such behavior epitomizes one-way communication.

Upon regaining my voice, I participated in a listening exercise during Exhale’s National Pro-Voice Tour that focused on creating more supportive, respectful conversations about abortion and other topics on college campuses. Without uttering a word, I had to listen to someone I just met speak for three minutes. It was really interesting to not know where the speaker was going. In fact, it was a joy to cede control and not anticipate what was coming next!

Listening, I have learned, can take us someplace too.

A counselor for the Exhale Talkline also explained to me the difference between clarifying questions (making sure you understand what the person is telling you and checking assumptions) and curiosity (which is about satisfying you, the listener, and has nothing to do with the person who is speaking).

I had always thought of questions as being solely an expression of interest and generosity. Now, I am beginning to better understand that questions—even seemingly benevolent inquiries—can be a subtle source of control. We simply can’t listen if we’re talking, even if we are talking by questioning.

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COMMENTS

  • BY Karen Eber Davis

    ON March 25, 2013 06:02 AM

    Thank you, Thaler. I really appreciate you points about questions being used to control and sometimes to demonstrate the questioner’s power.  We’ve all been in situations where
    the surface behavior was “asking good questions” but the underneath message was “I’m in control here” or less aggressive but still troublesome, “Let me demonstrate my superior skills in conversations.” 

    With the hope of gaining clarity, let me ask a question.

    Where is the middle ground? That is, what kinds of questions can we ask to clarify and help us better to understand but also move our conversations to deeper levels that we mutually agree to pursue?

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