The number one reason we listen is to find out “what’s in it for me” or WIIFM. When we know our happiness or health might be impacted, we listen! Whether listening for the winning lotto number or the results of a high stakes medical exam, we tune in to information that is about “ME.” But listening isn’t always directly about “me.” Or so at times, it may seem. Like the conversation you are having at a networking event that seems so unrelated to “me” that your eyes wander off and you start to lose focus on what is being said.
If you are a sales professionals or service provider, the conversation is always about YOU. It’s about you even when it’s not about you. It’s about you because there is always potential to get to know someone and listen for a mutually beneficial connection. From the initial introduction to the back and forth of conversation, associations emerge and savvy listeners uncover realizable business leads for products and services. Though the ability to make small talk stimulates communication, real verbal engagement is only made possible by asking questions. Questions that are not necessarily about “me,” but express interest in what our interlocutor is talking about and show that we are listening.
Open-ended vs. close-ended questions
A good listener knows how to be an active participant in the conversation, not just take in information. S/he knows how to pose open-ended questions that solicit information beyond quick yes or no answers. Asking open-ended questions allows someone to think and reflect, give opinions and feelings and also hand control of the conversation over to the respondent. Using words such as “Why…..?” and “Where…..?” or asking questions such as “What do you think about …..?” or “How do you feel about …..?” make it possible for you to get to know the individual you are speaking with.
When a customer expresses the desire for something, do you take it at face value or do you try to filter the request by asking questions that uncover specifics about the desired outcome. Questions such as “could you explain what you mean by…….?” Or, would you mind explaining that in a little more detail?” are open-ended questions that clarify internal motivation. Without taking the time to ask questions, you may not fully understand what will satisfy your customer’s needs. Asking this type of question and others sheds light on the specifics behind your customer’s interest. And, knowing what drives the use for your services or products, you are more likely to satisfy the need for it.
Are you at ease asking questions?
But how comfortable are you asking questions? Do you politely nod and feel you should understand what is being said. Or, do you simply hold back from asking someone a question. The latter behavior may be a culturally-based notion or a personality tendency. We introverts sometimes need more time to think, before we ask a question. We are internally reflecting about what has been said. We are not terribly fond of “small talk” and it often takes us longer to deliver an inquiring statement. But when we do, it is a well thought out point of discussion that shapes the dialogue. If your hesitancy to ask questions is culturally-based, recognize that this could be limiting your ability to engage. Perhaps you feel your questions are intrusive or that you should already know the answers. Learn to ask different kinds of questions: closed, open, leading, hypothetical, probing. Overcoming the tendency to not ask questions is possible with practice and continued reassurance that learning to ask questions is a positive way to indicate you are actively listening and that you care about what is being said.
Put it in your own words
In addition to asking questions, another way to communicate that we are listening is to repeat what’s been said in our own words. We often hear people say, “I’d like to make sure we’re on the same page” and then rephrasing what’s been said. In essence, this is an acknowledgement of what is being said as it relates not just to you, but to the speaker and his or her intentions. By restating what’s been said, we are letting the speaker know that we want to fully grasp what is being said. Our effort to appreciate the conversation enhances the relationship between the speaker and the listener. We care enough to make sure we understand by using our own words.
The importance of knowing how to energize a conversation by asking questions is a basic communication skill that everyone should master. Communication skill here doesn’t mean just speaking, it means listening and actively responding with questions that further a conversation. There is no greater compliment you can pay someone than to take the time to listen and come up with relevant questions about what s/he has said. One never knows where a small talk conversation will lead. But to move “small talk” beyond chitchat, we need to know how to ask the kind of questions that show we are listening and promote understanding and relationships. That is real communication!