Ask 3 questions to practice listening

There are gobs of advice out there about how to communicate better – whether in meetings or in presenting to big groups or even just in email.  This is important stuff, some of which I’ve blogged about before (most popular seem to be Start with the Punchline, Please and 10 Obvious Tips for Email (that Most People Don’t Follow).

What about listening?  Does anyone out there teach how to listen better?  Does anyone even ask it of you?  It’s amazing when I reflect on my MBA curriculum that – outside of a dim nod to focus groups and the CEOs who “got out to spend time with customers – listening skills weren’t even recognized as something worth cultivating.  Maybe we needed to invite some more cultural anthropologists into the classroom, or it could be that the whole value proposition of business school is to churn out people who can talk their way into that first investment banking job, but listening is getting short shrift as a skill needed for personal and professional success.

Listening starts with the recognition that you don’t have all the answers, and that you have something to learn from the person who is talking.  It requires you to be present, to be active, and to care what other people think.  And, perhaps most obvious, it requires you to keep your mouth shut unless you have something really valuable to say.

If you think that you might not be a good listener, try this: in your next conversation, or the next time you meet someone new, ask three questions in a row of that person (instead of, when they tell you something, saying, “It’s funny, the same thing happened to me the other day….”).  This is a little heavy handed, but doing it will both force you to practice and recognize if your impulse is to turn the conversation back to you.  People love to be heard – so give them that chance.

I had barely thought about this until two years ago when I started working at Acumen Fund, where listening is one of our core values.  We start with the premise that the only way to really break the back of poverty is by listening to poor people to understand who they are, their needs and preferences.  This serves two purposes: on a practical level, it forces the enterprises we invest in to create products and services poor people both want and need.  More fundamentally, it forces us, and the enterprises we support¸ to respect poor people, to afford them dignity, and to recognize them as fully capable human beings with real aspirations for their own lives.

You don’t have to be in the business of serving unmet needs of an underserved population to have this be important or possible.  Start small.  Listen to your co-workers, your boss, someone who works for you or the customer or student or parent or donor you’re meeting for the first.  Really hear what they have to say (and really listen for what they really mean but are not saying).

If you’re the kind of person who says something in any meeting you attend, practice going to meetings and saying nothing.  (And if you tend to keep your mouth shut, listen harder and practice saying something.)

We all play different roles in different settings – are you in a 1-on-1 meeting with your boss; presenting to a big group as an “expert” on a topic; or in a brainstorming session with peers?  It’s so easy to focus on the different things we’re supposed to say in each of these situations.  Don’t forget that you have to practice listening too.

2 thoughts on “Ask 3 questions to practice listening

  1. Great post, Sasha. There is a big difference between “listening” and “waiting to talk”. Two methods I have found especially useful in ethnographic-style research are “Five Why’s” and silence. The former means you ask someone “Why?” five times in a row in response to his or her statement. Because people synthesize their thoughts when they speak (they try to tell you what they think you want to hear), often the true and personal REASON behind it all is levels and levels down.

    The second one, silence, is (for me) much more difficult but arguably more powerful. If you can bear it, count to five in your head rather than asking another question. While it feels awkward – especially with people you don’t know – the speaker will fill the silence and you will learn something deeper. When you let the speaker lead the conversation, you find out what actually is important to them, rather than what you as the listener imagine is important.

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