‘Judge a man by his questions not by his answers’ Voltaire
Questioning and listening skills are the foundation of effective communication. We rarely learn anything when we speak, but we learn a lot when we listen. Decision making, problem solving, learning, study, research and communication are processes that can be done efficiently when backed by top-notch questioning and listening skills. Asking the right questions results in obtaining relevant and correct information. Listening with attention and intent helps us learn. Most of us are endowed with a tendency to listen only with a view to reply when it’s our turn to speak. We need to be able to focus our attention on the other person’s conversation and words, tone and body language so that we understand them completely.
Most of us start out with insatiable toddler curiosity about the world around us. But as we grow up, we lose this thirst for knowledge somewhere along the way. We feel reluctant, embarrassed or even lazy to ask questions. The data that we glean as a result of questioning determines the conclusions, ideas and impressions that we come away with. If these are erroneous (and they will be if our questions are wrong to begin with), we cannot make the right decisions because we have not obtained the information that we were looking for. Framing questions and asking them in the right sequence, etc. (once we’ve obtained a greater understanding) play a crucial part in the process of communication and minimising conflict and confusion.
How to Ask the Right Questions
We ask questions every day and it can be described as a cornerstone of good living and effective learning. We ask questions of our partner, children, at the grocery shop and at work, and questions help us define problems and look for solutions. Communication becomes a more proactive, productive and spontaneous process. Whatever position you hold in an organisation or whatever your occupation, asking questions helps you obtain clarity about people, situations and things in general. In fact, we can say that we may never understand or know about things unless we ask the right questions.
Let’s seek to understand the many benefits of asking questions:
- Questions help clarify thoughts. It is much better (and safer) to ask questions than to harbour erroneous assumptions.
- Questions help to elicit interest and engage people in the conversation. In fact, many people won’t talk to you unless you ask questions. This is because questions demonstrate interest in other people and their concerns.
- Questioning helps enhance knowledge and improves understanding. It would be fair to assume that if you don’t know something, you haven’t asked information about it.
- You can build trust and enhance communication through questioning because the process involves feedback and is a two-way process.
- Questions are an excellent way to sift through information. You will gain access to useful as well as irrelevant information and this is a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff.
- Better quality of information gained through questioning helps you become a better decision-maker.
- Asking questions at the right time helps reduce wastage of time and resources due to confusion or meaningless information.
- Prejudices and pre-conceived opinions are often reduced as a result of questioning. Wrong notions and myths are dispelled and we benefit from the clarity which results from transparent communication.
- Confident people do not hesitate to ask questions. Asking questions helps boosts self-confidence and enhances assertiveness.
- Asking questions illuminates direction of thought and consequently clarifies the action that we should take. Since we have obtained correct information and dispelled misconceptions about people, we are in a position to make informed decisions.
How to Ask the Right Questions
- Avoid rhetorical or vague questions as the answers are likely to be correspondingly vague or nebulous too. They do not tend to elicit specific responses.
- Keep your tone friendly and interested, body language and nonverbal cues can make a person feel appreciated and acknowledged. Poor body language and an aggressive tone can intimidate the other person and reduce the likelihood of obtaining honest feedback.
- Ask open-ended questions that give the respondent the space to answer in the way he or she wants. Open-ended questions tend to encourage detailed responses and they also make the respondent comfortable. Binary questions (questions that can allow only a yes/no type of response), on the other hand, trap the respondent and may elicit forced replies.
- If you are asking questions in a tense situation, give the respondent time to answer so that they are able to focus and concentrate on answering correctly. In stressful situations, people tend to experience nervousness and their answers may not provide the correct information. Ask questions that dig deeper and encourages the respondent to ponder over the information that they have given you.
For example, if your colleague says that she finds someone difficult to work with, you may consider asking why she thinks that way.
- Phrasing in an overly direct manner may sometimes fluster the respondent so soften the approach. For example, instead of asking, ‘Should we offer 10% or 15% discount for client X?’ you could try asking, ‘What do you think will be an appropriate level of discount for client X?’
- Ensure that you leave gaps between questions to make it sound less like an interrogation. Even during periods of silence, communication is active and a restful breather will give both a chance to relax.
- Phrase your question in a way that makes it very clear what you want the answer to be. Sometimes, you may be seeking only facts. For example, you may ask, ‘How much tax did we pay last quarter?’. At other times you may be seeking opinion, for example, you may want to know, ‘What do you think of our new logo?’, hence, you may need to be sure if you want a fact, an opinion or a well-reasoned judgement for an answer.
- Avoid interrupting the other person because this will disrupt their train of thought and will redirect the conversation your way.
Effective questioning is a precursor to good listening skills.
‘Most of us listen with an intention to reply and not with the intent to understand’ Stephen Covey
Listening and hearing is very different; while hearing is a physical ability, listening is defined as a skill because it involves understanding what is being heard. The ability to listen helps you establish healthy rapports with your colleagues, subordinates, clients and family members. Being a good listener helps you become a better problem solver and your seniors are likely to consider you as a person who requires minimum follow-up. Active listening involves giving your full attention to the other person and what they are saying to you and valuing their communication. Valuing their words does not imply agreement; it simply means that you are acknowledging what they have to say. In fact, good listening skills are extremely valuable in situations where conflict resolution is needed because you make a sincere choice to understand the other party’s point of view.
The absence of listening skills often leads to increased instances of misconceptions, lack of understanding, lack of comprehension and prejudicial conclusions. Moreover, these undesirable consequences eventually lead to poor decision-making. Active listening promotes trust, helps build relationships and improves communication at home, in the workplace as well as in other situations. Not being listened to makes one feel ignored and inconsequential. Developing good listening skills takes a lot of consistent practice.
That’s not all.
Great listening skills also promote enhanced capacity for knowledge and make you a more capable person. This invaluable skill helps save marriages, friendships and careers. It also helps save time and money because you avoid wasting valuable effort in trying to undo confusion that arises out of misunderstandings (which in turn was created due to poor listening). A person who listens carefully has the potential to encourage and motivate others as well as enhance inclusion and commitment. Good listeners make excellent negotiators because they are able to capture useful information and make effective counter offers. Similarly, effective listening skills help you build friendly and trustworthy rapports with customers.
Each person speaks, listens and communicates at a different pace. If you happen to be one of those people who is an agile communicator, you have to slow down your pace to match that of a slower communicator. This can be particularly challenging if the other person is a slow, halting and long-winded speaker. But listening is a skill that is extremely important to learn and master.
The following useful tips can help you develop active listening skills:
- Be conscious of your body language. Lean slightly towards the person that you’re talking to and avoid fidgeting. Make eye contact and place your palms facing upwards.
- Just as you should be mindful of your own body language, also be mindful of the speaker’s nonverbal cues. Listen to tone, pitch, frequency of articulation, etc. Does the speaker sound depressed, stressed, disheartened or annoyed? A good listener looks beyond words and reads between the lines.
- Mirror the other person’s gestures and tone of voice, etc; this helps build rapport and implies a sharing of ideas and attitudes. Look for the hidden meaning in a message because it’s very important to listen to what is not being said.
- Please do not interrupt the other person as this sort of behaviour smacks of smugness and arrogance. Wait until he or she has finished what they want to say. Most of us only wait for our turn to speak. Listen with the intention of understanding.
- Avoid filling in blanks in the conversation or making judgements based on half-information. Give the speaker your full attention.
- Learn to be comfortable with silence although it may feel awkward at first. Most of us try to fill silences with our own conversation. Silences are often instrumental in bringing forth more information.
- Stop checking your mobile device, Smartphones, etc. for messages. Stow away your devices and distractions and mentally screen out background noises and activity.
- Think before you respond and avoid blurting out the first thing that pops into your mind. Learn to listen to your mind before you speak. Also avoid giving any sign that you are about to respond. This can include moving to the edge of the seat or pointing fingers.
- If you end up speaking at the same time, request the other person to continue. Avoid finishing other people’s sentences. This way, you’ll end up following your train of thought rather than understand what the speaker is saying to you.
- Use paraphrasing, repetition and reflection to ensure that you have understood what the speaker has to say.
The irony about being human is that we don’t always understand each other or communicate adequately. In fact, we could say that each one of us hears and understands differently. It’s time to reinvent yourself and become a child all over again and rediscover the joy of knowledge. It can be difficult to ask questions at times, but the consequences are likely to be much worse if you don’t ask questions. This often results in a lack of understanding, lack of access to important information or results in the harbouring of prejudicial views or misconceptions. Such adverse results impacts the quality of communication to a significant extent and you are likely to be severely hampered in your decision-making. Asking questions helps boost confidence, clarifies thinking, strengthens relationships, reduces prejudices and helps build trust between people. We become better thinkers and decision-makers in the process.
Right from our childhood, we are trained to answer and respond and are often rewarded for exceptional answering. This social conditioning often prevents us from perceiving the crucial importance of asking questions. Performance is often described as the ability to find solutions and solve problems – even when those problems are the wrong ones to solve. Detailed questions may not sound as exciting as brilliant answers but they often lead to breakthroughs in business and career success. People appreciate being valued, respected and important.
Similarly, effective questioning skills should be followed up by active listening skills. After all, we have asked questions so that we are able to elicit a proper answer. Good listening skills have the potential to boost communication skills, establish empathy and make better decisions. There is reduced likelihood of misunderstanding and conflict because you have paid full attention to the conversation, words, nonverbal cues and body language. Active listening can help you understand others’ perspectives and hence become a much better problem-solver. You will also be effective at defusing potentially stressful situations because you are more open to others’ opinions and experiences.
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