Listen Before You Ask
Listen Before You Ask

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

I’ve always loved that line from Rumi’s poem, “A Great Wagon.” It is an apt description of a necessary condition of true communication, a willingness to drop personal perspective of right and wrong and be present to the experience of another person.

I’ve found that the quickest, most effective way to get out on that field is to ask questions that demonstrate interest in learning about another person’s perspective. Most of the time, I have a better chance of engaging in a great conversation with someone if I am willing to do the work to get us both on the field.

Good questions open up previously unseen possibilities. Seems easy enough — we start asking questions as little humans to find out about the world. One of my favorites, asked of me by my then 4-year-old son, in a thoughtful voice, “Mom, do fish have butts?” I stifled a laugh as I responded, matching his seriousness. The question opened up an interesting dialog about biology that led our family to learn about many different animals.

Somewhere along the path to adulthood, we learn that there are questions you can ask, and questions you can’t. (My child would not have asked his question as a 4th grader for fear that other kids would laugh at him.) We also learn the socially acceptable answers. How often has someone asked “How are you?” without waiting to hear your response. How many times have you responded “I’m fine, thanks.” when your life feels anything but fine.

In our always-on society of quick response and immediate gratification, pat questions and easy answers seem like an efficient way to get business done. However, it takes time and intent to arrive at the kind of presence necessary for great conversation, both in business and at home.

About four years ago, I started digging into what it means to ask a good question. I was surprised to learn that to become skilled at asking questions, you first must be proficient at four levels of listening, each one leading to a more nuanced and complete understanding. (Little kids are adept at all four, before they learn the ways of adults.)

While I cannot do justice to the richness and depth behind each of the levels of listening in this short piece, in a nutshell, they are:

  • Listening from presence – you are paying attention, and the other person feels it.
  • Listening for clarifying – you restate the other person’s position, establishing mutual understanding
  • Listening for empathy – you create a connection so the other person feels that you accept (but not necessarily agree with) what they feel
  • Generative listening – you are in sync with the other person and together you exchange ideas and information that create innovation.

These four levels of listening create some business advantages:

  • You get an idea of what is important to the other person which is useful in crafting an out-of-the-box solution that works for both of you.
  • The other person feels heard, even if you don’t agree with their perspective or ideas. This level of respect leaves the door open for future business.
  • You are able to get the other person to put their cards on the table, giving you time to respond, not react.

With intent and practice, arriving at Rumi’s field becomes easier and has the potential to create amazing business opportunities and satisfying personal relationships. And who knows, you may just be able to get an answer the burning questions your fifteen-year old self was too self-conscious to ask.

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