Walking between flights at Newark Liberty Airport today, a woman standing at a sales kiosk spoke to me, “Sign up for our credit card. 30,000 frequent flier miles for signing. Wouldn’t you like a free flight?”
“I already have your card.”
“Sign up for our credit card,” she said – again.
She hadn’t listened to my answer.
It’s embarrassing. You ask a question. You’re being polite – maybe not interested in the answer. Your friend answers, and you follow with silence. What did he say? Oops. Awkward. And the friend gets the message. You weren’t really interested.
I suppose we’ve all done it. A couple months ago there was an article in the Wall Street Journal: While You’re Talking, the Therapist is Thinking . . .. Dr. Paul Hokenmeyer, a psychotherapist was interviewed.
WSJ: “Does your mind wander?”
Dr. H: “Frequently. Most of the time it wanders back to the session I had with the last patient and what I should have done differently.”
Whoa. When my mind wanders in the middle of a conversation, it’s pretty easy to know what I wish I had done differently. I wish I had concentrated!
Dr. H: “It can also wander if the patient is avoiding connecting and filling the time with superfluous details. I’ll start to think about the dry cleaning or what I can have for dinner.”
We’re not alone. Minds wander. But it’s not a good idea! What does it say to the person we’re talking with? Maybe, “You’re not important to me.” Or, “I was asking the question just to be polite.”
In his book, Great Leaders Ask Questions: A Fortune 100 List, Bob Tiede suggests stimulating questions that will spawn thought and generate conversation in a myriad of situations. It’s practical. And it made me think that if I ask a question, I had better listen to the answer!
I’ve observed people asking important questions that could result in a meaningful conversation, but not listening to the answer. They missed the opportunity for the conversation. There is a danger of using the question as an insincere tool in the process of accomplishing what one wishes to accomplish.
Here’s two questions for you: Why do we make an appointment or set up a business meeting? Why do we use our cellphone or text someone? Chances are our goal is to present our point of view. Sure, we ask for the other person’s point of view, but we’re only interested in it if it relates to our purpose. If the other person is persuaded to do what we want, to look at things the way we look at them, we have been successful. But have we?
To an extent, the answer is yes. If we make the sale, persuade the person to take responsibility for the project, or solve the problem the way we want it solved, we have experienced a measure of success. Nothing wrong with being successful at our task, but asking a stimulating question, listening carefully to the answer, and asking follow up questions, opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
People love to teach what they know. People sense false motives pretty quickly. Let’s say that I’m in sales – something I understand well because much of my early career was serving key accounts. Let’s say that I ask a series of questions to make my client consider the strengths of my product. The questions work. She buys the product. The sale is made.
Now let’s say that I alter my approach. I decide to ask questions with the sincere intention of learning what is important to my client and to her company. I want her to teach me what she knows. Let’s say that the questions are focused on learning how my company can make her successful in her job at her company. The questions aren’t routine, they are focused on finding out how my company can be of use. And I listen carefully, take notes, go back to my office and talk to my associates. I figure out if there is a way not only to sell her my product, but to provide her with tools that will make her even more successful at her job. And I follow up not so much to persuade her to purchase my service, but to provide answers to the issues that came from our discussion – to provide tools that she can use to meet her goals.
By focusing on her answers, my company can have a serious positive impact on her company and her career. I become a valued associate. The product I provide becomes critical to her success. My business grows as hers grows. Not only that, but I learn from that relationship how to better serve other clients. My career, my value to my organization grows. If I work for a ministry, my work in the Kingdom of God, gains traction. It’s impact increases.
For that to happen we must ask thoughtful questions AND listen to the answers. In response we must serve well. And then, we all will benefit.
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