Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Basic Listening Skills: Asking Productive Questions

Question mark sign by Colin Kinner, cc license
I once trained an FBI agent to be a crisis hotline volunteer. He had a big heart and he was an excellent listener, but the active listening skill set presented some challenges. He tended to slip into interrogator mode; asking questions was, by far, his favorite active listening tool. It took a lot of practice, but he learned to use questions differently and he quickly became one of our most effective volunteers.

Depending on how they're used, questions can be your greatest tools or your greatest liabilities when it comes to meeting the goals of active listening. When questions come from a place of genuine curiosity and they are worded as open-ended queries, you demonstrate that you care and the questions may lead to greater clarity and understanding for both of you. There are three bad habits, however, that result in less productive questioning and impede the goals of active listening. When questions are closed or leading and they account for most of your responses, the conversation becomes boxed in by your expectations. To boot, it shifts the pattern of the interaction such that you end up talking way too much and working way too hard. Breaking these three habits will liberate you while also resulting in more productive conversations.

Bad Habit #1: Overusing Close-Ended Questions

Close-ended questions, those that can be answered with a word or two (most often yes/no), aren't necessarily bad. They result in quick, specific information that could be important ("Are you thinking about suicide?") and can be especially effective when you're seeking clarification ("Am I understanding you correctly?"). Because they're quickly answered, you have less time time to process the answer before the ball is back in your court and the pressure is on for your next response. If you happen to follow up with another close-ended question, and another, and another... you end up micromanaging the interaction and it becomes more of an interrogation than a conversation.

Conversely, using open-ended questions invites more careful reflection and allows the other person to share what she deems most important.

Bad Habit #2: Asking Leading Questions

There are two kinds of leading questions. The first is an overt leading question which clearly implies the "correct" answer ("You're not thinking about anything as stupid as getting back with your ex, are you?!?"). The other kind of leading question (or series of questions) is meant to lead the other person to a conclusion or solution at which you've already arrived ("Is your brother coming home for the holidays? Does he still drive that truck? Do you think he could help you move some of that junk out of your basement so you don't feel so bogged down?")

You may have noticed that both forms of leading questions are also close-ended, and are therefore subject to all of the limitations mentioned previously. In addition, leading questions send the message that you know what's best and/or you don't care about what the other person has to say as much as you care about conveying your own thoughts on the matter. Either way, it demonstrates judgment rather than understanding and may result in the conversation ending prematurely (not in a good way).

The "cure" to this habit is, again, to ask open-ended questions and to make sure that your questions come from a place of curiosity. For the latter shift, it's most important to cultivate your active listening mindset - particularly non-judgment and respect

Bad Habit #3: Asking Too Many Questions

You may be surprised how few questions you really need to ask in order to have a successful active listening conversation. A lot of sharing is prompted by simply reflecting feelings and content. When you ask many questions, especially one after another, it can be perceived as interrogating and leaves the other person feeling defensive or flustered. Neither of those feelings leads to more productive sharing and understanding. 

To shift away from asking too many questions, shift towards using the other reflective listening tools. When you do ask a question, give the other person plenty of time to process and respond and then be sure to follow up by reflecting feelings and/or content. 

Practice Asking Productive Questions

Your overall game plan for asking more productive questions is as follows: 
  1. Double check that your questions come from care and curiosity, rather than a place of judgment or a lack of respect
  2. Spend more time reflecting feelings and content. 
  3. Practice asking more open-ended questions. 
Open-ended questions are best practiced by using the "notice, rephrase, and repeat" technique. During the course of your day, notice when you ask a close-ended question and then try asking it again in an open format. For example:
  • "Did you have a good day?"
  • "No."
  • (Doh!) "How was your day?"
  • "Fine." 
  • (Not fair! That was open-ended!)
If at first you don't succeed, continue to rephrase until you get more than one word in response: 
  • "How did you spend your day?"
  • "What did you do today?"
  • "What was your day like?"
  • "What happened today?"

Happy questioning!

Next in the Active Listening Primer: Prompting Others to Actively Listen

The Active Listening Primer

Part 1: The Active Listening Mindset
Part 2: Basic Active Listening Skills
Bonus: Prompting Others to Actively Listen

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