Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Asking By Listening

A former boss of mine used to say that the key to management consisted of asking “the second question.” The second question was a variation on “why?” In his estimation, when confronted with “pushback” -- the approved euphemism for “no” -- your job was to ask the person the basis for his opposition. In theory, you could then get around the pushback by getting at the underlying causes.

It’s one of those theories that works perfectly about five percent of the time. The glaring flaw is that it presumes that your interlocutor is both self-aware and naive. Most aren’t.

A recent exchange on campus has convinced me that it’s often more effective to ask simply by shutting the hell up for a while and listening. Let the person answer the second question in the course of explaining something else.

Without giving too much away, the gist of the exchange was that I was discussing a project with a department chair. He wasn’t buying it. I explained why I thought it was a good idea, offering several reasons I thought were both true and persuasive. He didn’t budge. For lack of any better ideas, I let the discussion wander for a while, led mostly by him. We discussed the history of this and the unintended consequences of that, going nowhere in particular.

As the discussion unfolded, I started to notice a pattern: he was far more concerned about departmental voting than he was about the merits of any given proposal. In other words, the reason he wasn’t buying anything was that he didn’t think it was his place to; to his way of thinking, nothing is valid until the department votes that it is. That was why he conceded many of my arguments, but didn’t shift his position; my arguments didn’t address his unspoken assumption.

Once I figured that out, the discussion became far more productive. I realized that I was asking him the wrong questions. Instead of asking for support or endorsement, I should ask for a spot on a department meeting agenda to bring up my proposal. Only then could arguments from the merits really be heard.

His perspective is perfectly valid, but it didn’t occur to him to spell it out; he just assumed it was obvious. In the absence of spelling it out, what was actually a procedural objection just looked like crankiness for its own sake. But I wouldn’t have put that together if he hadn’t had the chance to talk open-endedly for a while.

Direct questioning would have been perceived as hostile. Interrogation doesn’t encourage candor. Had I asked the “second question” upfront, he probably wouldn’t have answered it.

In my experience, the “asking by listening” technique works best when it’s one-on-one, or, at worst, in a very small group; it’s nearly impossible in a large group, since nobody holds the floor long enough and people start playing to the crowd. The theatrics of the setting make candid free-associating much more difficult.

The beauty of the technique, when it works, is that it allows for the emergence of an answer that works for everyone. Once I realized the basis of the objection, I had no problem shifting what I was asking for, since the essence of what I wanted wasn’t at stake. And he had no problem shifting his position, since in a meaningful way, he already won on the issue that mattered to him.

The approach has obvious limits. It won’t work when the interests are fundamentally opposed, for instance. Nor will it work when one side doesn’t grant the legitimate existence of the other. And it requires a level of self-confidence that allows you to shut the hell up for extended periods. (When you’re working with people who give lectures for a living, the periods can be very, very extended.) But if you’re reasonably confident in your ability to discern patterns, and you’re willing to sit and listen, and listen, and listen, it can be a hell of a lot more effective than just asking the second question.

"Why" can be an awfully hard question to answer, sometimes, especially if your objection is intuitive and not well-grounded in logical argument. But I think the key to using "why" well is to ask it and then listen to the answer.

The people who ask "why" well encourage moving beyond the intuitive gut response and into the analytical stage. "We can't do X because of Y, but maybe we can find a way around Y, then we can do X..." The trick there is you have to ask why and be prepared to respond constructively to the answer. Which, I guess, constitutes "listening."
Very interesting, very well presented. Thanks for another great post.
I have come to the conclusion that there is some truth to everything every one tells you, but the truth is only valid in that person's context. The trick is to understand that other person's world.

IOW, you have to draw out from other people what they assume to be the unspoken obvious because "everybody" knows it.
It's rare that we have time to sit, talk and let ourselves figure matters out this way, but very, very useful. Often times we learn to look at matters from the other perspective and that gives us enough information to bridge the gap. Again, the problem is making the time to sit and listen before all the plans are drawn up for change!
In Vino Veritas, nu?
Off topic today, but I want to congratulate you on predicting the sort of thing pointed out in this "Quick Take" today in IHE:

Yep, the bottom tier of private universities is in trouble.
At my university a required course is Effective Listening, and there's a reason it's a required class. As you've shared in this post, a lot can be achieved and learned by shutting up and just listening to what others have to say. :)
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