In a previous article, we discussed to concept of Listening to Understand coined by Steven Covey. In that article we introduced a tool, that allows for a deeper inquiry of the topic that is being presented to you. This tool is to simply listen for some clues provided in the conversation, then ask an open-ended question based on those clues.

Ask Better Questions

A good friend always says, if you want better answers, ask better questions. Sound advice, but what is a better question? The answer to that for me is to ask questions that get deeper, and uncover The Why behind the story. I believe Why is the most important question you can ask. It helps me understand the reasons behind the what or the how. It helps me recognize the purpose behind the conversation.

The problem is that “Why” is a difficult question to ask. It can come off as accusatory, and make people defensive. Asking “Why do you prefer steak over chicken”, can sound like “WHY on earth would anybody prefer steak over chicken?” Remember communication is not about what it is we are saying, but what the other person is hearing or how they receive it.

Tell, Explain or Describe

How do we get to someone’s why without eliciting a defensive response? Try a technique called TED. This is an acronym for Tell, Explain or Describe. Starting a question with one of these TED words automatically makes this an open-ended question. For example, Tell me more about your trip? Describe what it felt like when your raft hit a category 4 rapid? Explain what you mean when you say the people of Costa Rica are wonderful. These questions all require a story to be told. It is in these stories that we can get to the other persons why. They will give you clues, with the emotion they exert when telling the story.

Eye Contact

Another important concept to remember is to stay focused on the speaker. Too often we get distracted by our surroundings. A car goes by and we shift our attention. My cell phone vibrates and I look down to see who is calling. When my eyes shift off the speaker, they can tell immediately that we are not nearly as engaged as we are pretending to be. I am not suggesting locking eyes and staring at the speaker. What I am saying is that when you are fully present and pay attention to the facial reactions, body language in addition to the voice inflection and words, it is apparent that you are engaged.

Body Language

Most people realize that watching for body language is an important function in listening. We notice when someone’s arms are folded which indicates the other person is closed off. We may notice them shifting from side to side as evidence that they are uncomfortable. It is easy to read others, and the body language they are displaying, then attaching meaning to that. What many do not recognize is their own body language and the message it is sending. To engage in active listening, or listening to understand, we must be aware of our posture and movements as well. For instance how we either face the other person of simply turn part of our body. We will detail this crucial subject in future posts. For this, simply recognizing the signals we are sending what is important.

Listening to Understand then is as much about really trying to understand where the other person is coming from as it is for them to feel as they have been heard. That last statement has been in my experience the key to developing a relationship. Allowing the other person to be heard, and for them to feel that they have been. This point is crucial. We all want to be understood. It is a basic human need to connect. The feeling that another person understands us allows us to get closer to that person.