The best kept secret about how to communicate in a tense conversation is this: forward movement will usually happen because of something you hear, not because of something you say.
forward movement will usually happen because of something you hear, not because of something you say. Jonathan HooverClick to tweet
I have written in my books and on this blog about the fact that when conversations turn sharp, it usually ends in two people talking (sometimes very loudly) and no one listening. Arguments and heated exchanges often do nothing to move the ball down the field, and do far too much to elevate your heart rate, blood pressure, and overall stress level. And what’s the point of that?
If you take a moment and think of the really amazing communicators you’ve met, I’ll bet they all have this in common: they’re great listeners. Strike that. They’re great interviewers. They don’t just listen to what others say, they know how to ask great questions to draw them out. If you’ve ever been in the presence of a truly great listener, you know that when you’re done talking to them, you feel heard, understood, cared about, and energized.
And you can be that kind of listener. How? Great question.
In a minute, I’ll give you five amazing questions that will help you draw out others and let them know you really want to understand what they’re feeling and experiencing. But first, there are a couple of ground rules.
To be a great listener, you have to develop a comfort level with silence. When the room goes silent, most of us feel the pressure to fill the empty space with words to avoid awkwardness. For instance, a person who tends to communicate a little more slowly than I do may leave long pauses between their thoughts. If I jump right in during that first silence, I may be keeping him or her from finishing what they need to say. A good rule of thumb here is to practice the 5-second rule. When you think the other person is finished speaking, leave five seconds of silence to give them a chance to continue. You’ll be amazed at how often the other person picks right back up with what they were saying—even after you thought they were through.
To be a great listener, you have to develop a comfort level with silence. Jonathan HooverClick to tweet
Second, you have to develop the skill of holding a thought. I firmly believe that the number one reason people interrupt others is that they struggle to “hold” thoughts that pop into their head while the other person is speaking. For instance, if the other person is talking about something you know didn’t happen the way they think it did, or you feel they are mischaracterizing a person or a situation, or you feel you have something to share that would fundamentally change what the other person is thinking, it can feel like the right thing to talk over them and set them straight. But of course, interrupting doesn’t help things—it usually makes things worse.
Third, it’s important to do a gut-check and make sure that behind your listening ear is a caring heart. Listening well is an amazing skill, but the skill is only as powerful as the will behind it. In order to truly communicate at your best, it’s important that you have a will to show kindness to the other person by caring about them.
So, suppose you’re in a conversation with someone and you really want to prove that you are a great listener and ready to hear whatever they have to share. Here are five great “drawing out” questions you can use to help them see you as an ally and to encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings.
What is it like to ________________?
- What was it like to be you today?
- What is it like to manage that department?
- What is it like to be going through this health struggle?
- What is it like to be on the other side of me?
- What is it like to hear me say _______________?
- What is it like to experience that much stress?
Could you help me understand _________________________?
- Could you help me understand how this decision was made?
- Could you help me understand what you heard when I said ____________________?
- Could you help me understand the way you’re feeling right now?
- Could you help me understand what I’m not quite getting about __________________________?
- Could you help me understand what led up to _______________________________?
What else are you thinking/feeling?
- What else are you thinking about _____________________________?
- Now that you’ve shared this with me, what else are you feeling?
- Okay. Thanks for telling me this. Are there any other feelings you wanted to share?
What bothers you so much about ______________________?
I’ve written an entire book on this question. You can get it free, here.
Is there something I can do?
- Next time you feel this way, is there something I can do that will help?
- Thanks for letting me know this is how you feel. Is there something I can do that will make this easier for you?
- Is there something I can do that will make this less difficult?
- Is there something I can do that will be a blessing in this situation for you?
Of course, these are just five of an infinite number of questions you can use to boost your communication skills, but they represent a great start. If you put these questions to work for you, you’ll begin to see a sparkle in the eyes of the people you communicate with, because you will have distinguished yourself as a very rare sort of person—a listener. And when you do that, you’ll be well on your way to being a communication pro.