Clarify and interpret
Use open-ended questions as often as you can. ‘What happened next?’, ‘How did you feel when that happened?’, ‘Why do you think they did that?’ Use clarifying questions such as: ‘Let me see if I am clear – I think you mean this…’, ‘I’m not sure what you mean, could you repeat that a different way?’ I often use the phrase: ‘You haven’t used these words, but it seems that you are saying…’, or ‘So you really felt undermined, is that it?’
Beware of too often using: ‘Why?’ It can be seen as quite an aggressive question, one that forces people to justify themselves. Soften it by saying something like: ‘Tell me more about why you chose that option?’
Questions are the breath of life for powerful conversations. Learning to ask questions in a non-aggressive way is crucial to good listening. Your questions should be filled with interest and even curiosity. People are naturally inclined to answer questions that are posed to them. If the questions are honest and sensitive we usually answer them. We all respond to questions in a much more positive way than to pointed advice.
When people feel trusted and listened to, they will be much more open to the power of questions. What is the right question? That’s hard to say; it might very well be a closed question seeking a firm conclusion, or it might be an open question continuing to explore. The trick is to create an atmosphere in which searching questions can be asked. Try not to clutter your question with your own preconceptions, and especially avoid make a question sound like a lecture. The good leader asks incisive questions, but avoids making people feel beaten up.
Most of the leaders I have spoken with talk about the power of one particular question. That question is: ‘How did you feel about that?’ The reason it is such a powerful question is that it invites people to share their emotions with you. It is a powerful way to get to the bottom of issues very quickly, especially if people trust you enough to answer honestly. It is a valuable shortcut to getting to the real issues quickly. Until people have given expression to their emotions, it can be difficult to have a constructive discussion about how to solve a problem. Leaders have to give people the licence to be emotional.
You have to listen for what is not said and ask the questions that will surface the things that have not been expressed. Listen for opportunities in between the words. True wisdom doesn’t see opposition, it sees only opportunity. Where are the opportunities in what you are hearing?
A key listening technique is to rephrase what has been said. Reflect what the other person is saying to you, but make sure it is not in their words. It requires immense concentration, but when you reflect things back to people in different words, it can often help to crystallize or clarify an issue. By repeating things back in your own words, you also allow people to correct you if you have come to inaccurate views about what they are saying. Remember, your goal is to understand, and reflective listening is the most important technique to use to ensure understanding.
Do not simply parrot what they say, and avoid using reflective listening to develop data that you then use to move in with solutions, evaluation, judgement or even punishment. Use reflection with discretion, making sure that it aids progress and is not interruptive. Never assume that you understand the other person. The biggest challenge of communication is believing that it has actually taken place. Until you have checked the meaning with people, you are in danger of wrongly interpreting what they’ve said. Learn to listen beyond the words, and listen with your heart and your eyes and your ears.