The Importance of Listening

Imagine a scenario where you just met a new CX colleague for the first time at a conference or other similar professional networking event.

The two of you introduce yourselves to one another after which the person you just met launches into a personal story around something personally interesting to them or about them which quickly merges into a second personal story and then a third and so on.

You’re initially interested and engaged, and so you ask them a question or two that encourages them to elaborate further. After about fifteen minutes of this essentially one-way conversation, your new colleague abruptly excuses themselves and after exchanging pleasantries you part ways.

You quickly reflect and realize that the conversation you just had was totally one-way. You weren’t asked any questions. The other individual commandeered the conversation and their conscious (or unconscious) delivery was so uninterruptible, that you didn’t have an opportunity to reveal anything about yourself.

How might you be feeling in such a situation?

I’ve been in this similar scenario more than once and, amazingly enough, it was among a group of CX colleagues which make this situation more profound and even more painful.

It’s not that this is common strictly among professionals either. At gatherings among friends and family, I will often experience similar conversational behavior.

There are one or two members of my immediate family that have never asked me one solitary question about me or my life in over five years. They are happy enough to be around me and to share everything about themselves and where they’ve been or what they’ve done lately or endured since the last time we saw each other.

Not only is this a one-way and completely energy draining conversational situation, it leaves me feeling entirely deflated, unrecognized, and unappreciated.

Overcoming One-way Conversations

What causes some people to be one-way conversationalists, and how do we best handle situations like this from getting under our skin and creating such negative feelings?

Let’s look at the business side of this one-way communication situation and see if there’s resolution to the professional issue first and then perhaps apply it to the personal and familial.

Conversation is a fundamental human experience, necessary in the pursuit of goals in both professional and personal relationships among a wide array of circumstances.

One-sided conversations are totally uneven and the real question to ask when we find ourselves in that kind of situation is whether we can control it or at least have an exit strategy that doesn’t offend.

In an article published in Psychology Today in August of 2017 titled, How to Deal With People Who Just Won’t Stop Talking, author Susan Krauss Whitbourne cites research by Simon and Baum based on Skinnerian conditioning—behavior based on how, though our own actions, we might be reinforcing the incessant talker to choose to either continue their stream of delivery or help them choose to either slow down or stop and take a breath.

Experiments in conversation revealed that varying eye-contact and agreeing with the talker had no effect of diminishing their delivery—as one might naturally assume it would.

However, the experiments showed that by not contributing further to the conversation, i.e. being quiet, has a more positive effect.

According to Krauss Whitbourne, “The Simon-Baum study showed that people will talk less when they sense that others in the conversation are being unusually quiet. Resisting the urge to interrupt, even to offer agreement, may be the best way to signal that it’s time for the other person to quit.”

Other than having a conversational exit strategy, as the above research study suggested, how else can we manage to have balanced conversations especially in the workplace where much of the workday is spent asking others for information such as requesting status updates from the team leader, questioning a co-worker about a joint project plan, or perhaps even during causal lunchtime conversations?

Using Questions to Build Connections

Questioning can be a powerful tool for unlocking value within organizations. It stimulates learning and the exchange of ideas and it can spur innovative thinking leading to performance improvement.

Most importantly, it builds trust and rapport among team members.

For some people, questioning comes easy. Having a natural inquisitiveness and the ability to read people can help us frame up more ideal questions. However, many of us fail to ask enough questions, and when we do, we may not be asking them in an ideal way.

I recall quite vividly an exercise that was given to a communications class during my graduate studies in adult education at Boston University. The group of about eight of us were positioned at a round table and were told that for the next 15 minutes, participants could communicate by only asking questions of one another. Any answers provided to a question were to be, much like the Jeopardy game, in the form of a question.

You can’t imagine how uneasy and constrained some of us were during that exercise. It helped make a profound impact on some of us, including me, that it’s so easy to expound on something we are passionate about or about our own personal accomplishments and that we often don’t stop for a moment to think about whether the other person is interested, cares about, or even has the time for what we are telling them.

How We Respond Influences Conversations

Another article published in Harvard Business Review in 2018 titled The Surprising Power of Questions, provides insights from behavioral science research in exploring how the way we frame questions and choose to answer our counterparts can influence the outcome of conversations.

They offer guidance for choosing the best type, tone, sequence, and framing of questions and for deciding what and how much information to share to reap the most benefit from our interactions, not just for ourselves but for our organizations.

It starts with being a good listener. As Dale Carnegie advised in his 1936 classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People; “Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.”

More than 80 years later, most people still fail to heed Carnegie’s advice.

The article offers that the first step in becoming a better questioner is simply to ask more questions. Of course, the sheer number of questions is not the only factor that influences the quality of a conversation.

Framing also matters and the best approach for a given situation depends on the goals of the conversationalists—specifically, whether the discussion is cooperative (the parties are trying to build a relationship or accomplish a task together) or competitive (the parties are seeking to uncover sensitive information from each other or serve their own interests), or some combination of both.

The article offers the following tactics for communication and questions:

1. Favor Follow-up Questions

Not all questions are created equal. Follow-up questions seem to have special power. They signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care, and want to know more. People interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard. An unexpected benefit of follow-up questions is that they don’t require much thought or preparation—indeed, they seem to come naturally.

2. Know When to Keep Questions Open-ended

No one likes to feel interrogated—and some types of questions can force answers into a yes-or-no corner. Open-ended questions can counteract that effect and thus can be particularly useful in uncovering information or learning something new. Indeed, they are wellsprings of innovation—which is often the result of finding the hidden, unexpected answer that no one has thought of before.

3. Get the Sequence Right

The optimal order of your questions depends on the circumstances. During tense encounters, asking tough questions first, even if it feels socially awkward to do so, can make your conversational partner more willing to open-up. People are more willing to reveal sensitive information when questions are asked in a decreasing order of intrusiveness.

Of course, if the first question is too sensitive, you run the risk of offending your counterpart, so it’s a delicate balance, to be sure.

4. Use the Right Tone

People are more forthcoming when you ask questions in a casual way, rather than in a buttoned-up, official tone.

People also tend to be more forthcoming when given an escape hatch or “out” in a conversation.

For example, if they are told that they can change their answers at any point, they tend to open up more—even though they rarely end up making changes. This might explain why teams and groups find brainstorming sessions so productive.

5. Pay Attention to Group Dynamics

Conversational dynamics can change profoundly depending on whether you’re chatting one-on-one with someone or talking in a group.

Not only is the willingness to answer questions affected simply by the presence of others, but members of a group tend to follow one another’s lead.

The opposite is true, too. As soon as one person starts to open-up, the rest of the group is likely to follow suit.

6. Decide What to Share and What to Keep Private

There is no rule of thumb for how much—or what type—of information you should disclose. Indeed, transparency is such a powerful bonding agent that sometimes it doesn’t matter what is revealed—even information that reflects poorly on us can draw our conversational partners closer.

In an organizational context, people too often err on the side of privacy—and under appreciate the benefits of transparency.

How often do we realize that we could have truly bonded with a colleague only after he or she has moved on to a new company? Why are better deals often uncovered after the ink has dried, the tension has broken, and negotiators begin to chat freely?

Of course, at times you and your organization would be better served by keeping your cards close to your chest.

Be Mindful in Conversations and Ask Good Questions

Questions are indeed powerful communication tools in both our professional business and personal lives. As Albert Einstein famously said, “Question everything.”

It certainly served him well and it can serve our own needs for learning and creative output just as well. I’ve been in conversations where my questioning has unveiled new insights that have gone on to produce a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

We become more engaged and motivated in both our personal lives as well as our working lives when we are good listeners to begin with, understand the power of asking and answering good questions, mindful of when we might be dominating a conversation based on our personal perspectives and knowing how to extricate ourselves from a one-way conversation when happening to us.