A few days ago while having lunch at a local grill, a young guy sat down beside me. Shortly, we were engaged in a fast and hot conversation and I found out that he was a residential architect and he learned I was an executive coach. Learning that I too was fascinated by architecture, he began to quiz me about my specific interests and background. Finding that I grew up in metropolitan Detroit in the forties and fifties, he wanted to know about some of the great residences near the still-beautiful Fisher building on Woodward Avenue. An enlightening conversation about the monstrous costs and impossibility of building such magnificent homes today followed.
As he began to leave nearly an hour later, he asked one question I’d heard before: “What’s the most important communication rule I need to know for my business?” “Well,” I responded, “not the talking I’ve been doing here. Instead, ask a couple highly relevant questions and listen, listen, and listen. Then clarify the responses with another question or two, and listen, listen, and listen some more. At the end of an hour you’ll know a great deal of highly useful client information.” He nodded in very strong affirmation.
Listening is frequently and sometimes naively associated with only information gathering about tasks and the background of an individual. Often the more important information from listening is assessing the talker’s intent or motives — what that person is trying to achieve. Many times the partner’s goals and motives are not explicit, sometimes purposefully kept private. Over time, listening can enable us to figure out why a person is behaving certain ways and enable us to form attributes about the individual. This kind of data can provide insights for collaboration and relationships and even determine a person’s ideologies and other highly useful work relationship information.
The conversational pattern
Although the pattern, question, listen, clarify, listen has been around for a long time, surprisingly few use it or are aware of its power. Be aware that though the pattern looks simple in print, both questioning and listening are hard work, demanding unique expertise. But the pattern is broadly useful in conversations such as information gathering, problem solving, selling, networking, project management, tech development, and even hacking. Actually, there are opportunities for the use of this pattern in most personal and business situations.
This form of “talk-‘til-you-get-it-right” is based upon our current notions of empathy. In business that may be perceived as a sense of deferring and giving power to others, conveying esteem and desiring increased understanding from the other. In business, such questioning and listening typically result in increased verbalizations and decreased constraints and formality. Indeed, on many occasions the pattern enhances trust and self-disclosure which changes the relationship between those involved. Although research indicates that there are “marked individual differences in empathic ability,” coaching for listening and questioning can constructively impact that deficit.
Using top-down, hierarchical talk and little listening reflects a serious misunderstanding of how power and relationships actually work. Extensive research has shown for years that the real power in relationships lies in the hands of the effective listener, not the talker. Although few accept that fact, it has impacted one area of business strongly. Successful strategic salespersons typically use counseling (questioning and listening) as their basic model for relationship and sales-building. That’s a hundred and eighty degrees from the sales caricatures of the past.
This ostensibly simple, supposedly obvious pattern for conversation seems quite ordinary in print. But truly effective listening and highly relevant questions don’t come easy for 95% of the workforce — or professionals. This pattern is so print-obvious that it’s easy to get caught in the classic breakdown between knowing and doing. Beware: though you can readily understand the pattern, doing it effectively is a totally different matter. Furthermore, it’s very important not to underestimate its power. As one of no more than seven or eight fundamental conversational patterns, client and inter-disciplinary business relationships are built on its effective use. Indeed, the organizational and business payoff of the pattern can be the difference between success and failure.
Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.
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