We often don’t listen to understand. Rather, we listen to reply.
This is a short piece on why seemingly dumb questions are often the best questions, and how they break the habit of listening to respond as well. To get us primed for this exploration, I invite you to watch this very short video called It’s Not About the Nail. I predict you will either laugh out loud or find the clip entirely irritating. But just stick with me anyway.
Okay, you’re done?
The point (no pun intended) of this video with actor Jason Headley and his spouse is that often what we most need from others is not their suggestions/solutions, but rather their open, curious listening so we can figure it out ourselves. Right or wrong, the more someone pushes us toward their solution, the more likely we dig our heels in and resist. (I sure do 😊).
OF COURSE, sometimes we need to speak up and take action – for everyone’s safety and sanity. As evidenced by the representation of the gigantic nail, this video is an exaggerated example of how when we try to help others, we get nowhere, fast.
In our culture, we value deductive reasoning. We move from general ideas to specific conclusions. We ask questions to narrow down the possibilities. We rule out options in order to efficiently arrive at the most precise answer.
Think about team meetings. Questions are asked to gather data and arrive at conclusions. Providing the space for greater curiosity and open-ended questions is regularly undervalued and not appreciated.
If you are reading this now, you value problem-solving and are likely very good at it. The challenge comes when our problem-solving actually creates more problems including 1) all we get is pushback 2) we own the problem without accountability from others or 3) everyone complains and looks to us for the solutions.
Asking Rather than Telling
There is a grand rule of thumb of a 5:1 Ask-to-Tell ratio.
Meaning that we are at our best as managers/leaders, even friends/family/partners, when we listen and ask more than we tell. It creates healthy accountability and honors the resourcefulness of others.
Contrary to Popular Opinion, Curiosity Will Not Kill the Cat!
Yet when is curiosity a waste of time? When is it being nosy? When is it productive? We have a lot of judgments about being curious in our culture, including that it will end with serious and negative consequences.
Here’s the 🔑
We move things forward when we are curious about and for the other person, NOT when we are curious about how to move them toward our goal. Big shift, right? (And this shift certainly can be felt. When someone is asking us leading questions, we become a bit more guarded and suspicious.)
Information Gathering is Not Curiosity
Let’s be clear. There is a difference between information gathering (what we want to know) and curiosity. Here are a couple of examples:
- How much do you exercise every week? Or with curiosity: What would healthy fitness look like for you?
- Is this strategy working for you? Or with curiosity: What might make this an effective strategy for you?
- It sounds like you’re stuck between two choices. Or with curiosity: What’s another option besides these two?
Your Seemingly Dumb Questions Are Your Best Questions
Simple questions are powerful questions because they are open-ended and therefore invite introspection. They generally begin with what or how, and can not be answered with a yes or no. They lead to greater exploration and internal digging. They lead to insights and possibilities. They invite others to look within or to the future.
- What do you really want?
- What will this get you?
- What about this is important to you?
- What will you do and when will you do it?
- What else? (Ask this multiple times to invite someone to go deeper.)
- What if it worked out exactly as you want it to?
- What other options haven’t you thought of?
So as a wrap, when you want to shout out in utter frustration — Would you just take that damn nail out of your head! — I invite you instead to throw out a what question. See where the journey takes you. I predict you will be pleasantly surprised.