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.

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