Ask Questions and Listen!

Do you want to be a better listener? Then you need to be able to ask the right questions!

Did you ever notice that people don’t like to ask questions? It’s understandable when those questions are personal. You don’t want to offend anyone. But, most people willingly give answers to questions asked of them. So why are we so afraid to ask?

Becoming a Better Listener

When you ask questions, you have the tools you need to be a better listener. It’s indirect and subtle, but it works. When you ask questions, you listen for the answer. You aren’t spending your energy trying to think of what to say after the other person is finished speaking.

Before you fire up your question engine, be sure to keep a few tips in mind. The first is to be relevant. If you are all over the place on your topics, the other person is going to suggest you switch to decaf, because you are too wound up. Keep your questions relevant to the topic of discussion. You can transition into other topics, but try to keep them related.

Another tip is, don’t try to ask questions for the purpose of tricking someone into an answer or trying to show how smart you are compared to him or her. The idea is to connect with people by listening to their stories. In fact, a better approach is to ask questions that you know they will be able to answer. Sometimes, you may already know the answer. But it’s the process you are after as well as the answers.

It’s okay to ask questions that relate to you somehow, but try to keep the focus on the other person. People love to talk about themselves, and when they find people who are good listeners, they will open up to you.

Good questions can also steer the conversation. This can be an asset when you converse with someone who is overly chatty. If they are going on and on about a topic, use questions to reel them in. It’s a focused approach that gives you the control while moving the conversation forward.

If you aren’t one who typically uses questions, it can take a bit of practice to learn what to ask. But, you have plenty of opportunity for that practice in your day to day interactions with people. If you commute via public transportation, for instance, try to strike up a conversation with someone next to you. This isn’t as easy as it used to be with people self-absorbed with their smart devices. But, if you try, you will find many people are responsive.

Five Steps to Becoming a Better Listener

In this final post in the short series on listening skills I want to look at how you can become a better listener. If you want to become a better listener, follow these steps to get started. But first, understand why you’re listening. You are listening to gather information, to understand, to learn and even to have fun. You’re not listening to respond. That is the main difference in active listening.

Step #1: Pay Attention

That may seem like an oversimplification, but it’s true. You need to shut off distractions such as your phone and other screens and truly seek to pay attention. Don’t try to multitask. No one is good at that and you will miss important information if you don’t pay attention.

Step #2: Show Them You’re Listening

When you are listening, no one else will know if you don’t show it. Use your body language, gestures, and words to spur the conversation forward if it’s a conversation. If it’s a speech, it might help you to take notes on the main points of the speech so that you can follow up later.

Step #3: Offer Feedback

When it’s appropriate in the situation, offer affirmative feedback by paraphrasing what you think you heard. Then get confirmation that you’re correct before you ask more open-ended and clarifying questions to keep the communication going.

Step #4: Delay Judgement

If you’re truly actively listening, you need to listen to everything the person is saying before you offer your opinion. It’s okay to ask them if they’re finished with their story if they’re an especially active talker, but otherwise, if you don’t have the whole story you can’t provide your opinion. Sometimes it’s appropriate and sometimes it’s not, but if you’re actively listening you’ll be able to judge this better.

Step #5: Respond Appropriately

All honest and open responses are appropriate if they’re given in a respectful way. Always treat other people in the manner you wish to be treated, even if you disagree with them vehemently. Focus on the intended message and not always the content of what they said to truly delve into the discussion or issue.

It can take practice to learn to become a better listener, but it will pay off in many ways. You’ll build better relationships in all aspects of your life. People will like and trust you more. To get good at listening, you’ll need to become more self-aware than you may be now. You’ll need to know what your body is doing and to control your mind while you’re listening so that you are truly listening and not just pretending to listen.

Developing Your Listening Skills

In the previous post I looked at what it means to be a good listener. In this post I want to look at how you can develop the skills involved in listening and how you can give people the impression you are genuinely listening to them.

The entire point of listening is to gather information from the person speaking. To get the information the messenger wants you to receive, you may have to practice some techniques that help you truly listen to the speaker.

  • Focus on the Speaker – When you place your focus on the person speaking, you’re going to be more likely to understand what they’re trying to communicate. A good technique for focusing is to turn off any extraneous electronics or put them on mute. Focus your eyes on the speaker and not on what is behind them.
  • Establish Rapport – When you can relate to others, you’ll be able to build trust faster. For example, a way to establish rapport is to find common ground with the person speaking. Let them know that you’ve been there, or if you haven’t, let them know that too and ask them to explain more. Show that you’re empathetic, and learn how to mirror the speaker’s mannerisms and speech in an appropriate way.
  • Show Concern – There are numerous ways to show your concern without interjecting your opinion or interrupting the speaker. You can show concern with your eyes, by gently touching their hand or shoulder, and by showing the feeling in your eyes when you look at the speaker. Don’t detract from the speaker with an over-display of emotion, but let them know subtly that you are concerned about what they are saying.
  • Paraphrase – When appropriate, it’s a good idea to paraphrase what the speaker is saying. “I hear you saying that you’re overworked, tired, and stressed, is that right?” Then let the speaker answer whether that is correct before offering any type of solution.
  • Use Non-Verbal Cues – Not only should you pay attention to the body language of the speaker, but you should also provide non-verbal cues to the speaker that you’re supporting them and listening to them. You can do that by using reflection or mirroring. Pay attention to your face, make eye contact appropriately, and lean forward so that they see that you’re listening. Nod your head, smile, or frown, at the appropriate times.
  • Affirm Verbally – It’s also okay to say things like, “Continue”, “That’s terrible”, “I understand”, or, “This is exciting”. Use whatever is appropriate to show that you’re listening to them in a verbally affirming way.
  • Ask Open-Ended Questions – When you want to hear more of what someone is saying, you can ask open-ended questions. An open-ended question goes deeper than a yes or no question and requires a deeper answer. When you do this, avoid asking leading questions which suggests answers to them. An example of an open-ended job interview question goes like this: “Please describe what benefits hiring you will provide our company.”
  • Ask Specific Questions – If you need clarity, it’s okay to ask closed questions. “Are you saying that John is almost always late with his work?” This requires a yes or no, and can help you understand what the speaker is saying so that they can move forward with what they’re trying to communicate with you. When you do this, gesture for them to continue so it doesn’t stop the discussion.
  • Show Understanding – When it’s the right time, you can also disclose your own similar experiences to help the speaker relate to you better. You want to avoid making it all about you, though, so it depends on the situation. But a short sentence such as, “I’ve also received hate mail due to my social media activity, what did you do next?”
  • Avoid Responding until the Speaker Is Finished – It’s important to wait for the speaker to be finished before you start offering your opinion. Allow the person speaking to finish and pause for two or three seconds before you start talking about your opinion to ensure they’re done. The biggest thing to realize is that silence is not a bad thing when you’re trying to actively listen to someone.

When you’re actively listening, do not fidget, eye gaze, overreact, or interrupt. Listen for understanding, and show that you understand non-verbally and verbally. Show that you’re listening by leaning forward and using the right amount of eye contact and the right cues.

Are You A Good Listener?

In the recent set of posts about Difficult Conversations one of the skills that I identified was the ability to be a good listener. So, in the next few posts I want to explore what being a good listener means and how you can develop your skills in that area.

In my opinion, one of the most important things you can learn in life outside of empathy is learning to be a good listener. There are a variety of reasons for this. Outside of the fact that you’ll get to know people better if you’re a good listener, there is also the fact that people will remember you more and like you more if you listen. If you want to be popular, learn to be an active listener.

What It Means to Be a Good Listener

There are some characteristic signs of a good listener that you can teach yourself. With practice, these things will become natural to you. But they do take practice. When you start doing this, you’ll notice that people seem to like you more and remember you more. The main reason is that good listeners often elicit a lot more trust than bad listeners.

  • Make Eye Contact – A person who is really listening to you doesn’t look at screens, in the mirror, or out the window while engaged in conversation. They put the person they’re talking with at the centre of their thoughts and eye contact. You don’t have to gaze into someone’s eyes without rest, but you do need to show that you’re paying attention.
  • Ask Thoughtful Questions – At appropriate times, ask the person you’re talking to questions based on what they’ve already told you. Ask one question at a time and give them an opportunity to answer before interjecting into the conversation.
  • Pay Attention – It can be hard for most people to pay attention, but you can learn tricks to make your brain actively engage with listening to the person you’re talking with. Look at their face, listen to their words, and nod in agreement or disagreement while they talk. If you don’t understand something, ask for further explanation.
  • Avoid Making Assumptions – As was mentioned earlier, ask questions when you don’t understand. Never make assumptions about what someone means, and don’t read between the lines. When in doubt, simply ask for clarification to ensure that you really do understand what someone is trying to say to you.
  • Think before Responding – When it’s your turn to speak (which isn’t until you are able to find a two- to three-second pause between thoughts), always think about the right way to respond before you do it. Remember that the more questions you ask and the more you get the other person to talk, the more they’ll feel as if they know, like and trust you.
  • Don’t Change the Subject – When it is your turn to talk, don’t change the subject. Stick to what the other person is talking about, even if they say something that rubs you the wrong way. If you’re only focused on the topic and not how they choose to express themselves, your overall communication will improve – as will your ability to listen.
  • Don’t Interrupt – It can be hard when you are with someone who is super-talkative and talks fast, but when you’re focused on being a better listener you don’t want to interrupt people. Let them talk, keep listening, and focus on what they’re saying. When there is a two- to three-second pause, you can lean forward, look them in the eye, gesture with your hand, and then speak when they stop talking.

Being a good listener is an essential skill to develop in life. You will use this skill in all aspects of your life – personal and business. The biggest thing to know is that you want to listen to understand, not so that you can reply. When you start realising that, you’ll do a lot better and become an amazing listener.