Art of Listening

Sriram Mohan

Seek first to understand, then to be Understoodblur-business-close-up-597327

As a change agent, you may encounter people who have strong objections to your change idea. Some of the critiques you hear are substantive, while others are not. The strategies that have to be employed to counter these critiques are radically different. John Kotter’s book Buy-In [1] is a great read and can help you determine the right strategy for the situation. But the focus of Kotter’s book is helping you create responses when you engage in arguments.    What is less obvious is using a strategy of silence, focusing instead on listening rather than talking. This is something I struggle with often and I have gone down the rabbit hole of engaging with a non-substantive argument, when the right strategy would have been to stop talking and start listening.

I recently attended a workshop on academic leadership and a module on listening struck a chord with me. A good change agent is often a skilled negotiator and a master at conflict resolution. A vital tool in the negotiator’s arsenal is the ability to understand the other perspective. The change agent can achieve this by using the strategy of deep listening.   According to Dr. William Ury, deep listening builds rapport, creates a sense of empathy, and increases the feeling of being heard. This increases the chances of your own perspective being heard and thereby has the potential to create buy-in [2].

So, how do you become a good listener? Much like every other tool that a change agent deploys, this is one that requires practice. A good listener has to actively stop thinking and pay attention. It is natural for you to start strategizing your response to the speaker. The focus of your thinking has to shift from your response to the speakers’ perspective. Put yourself firmly in their shoes and try to figure out what they are saying, what they are not saying, and the emotions behind their thoughts.  One way to achieve this is to ask the right questions. Asking powerful questions is valuable; however, sometimes asking questions in general is seen as a sign of weakness and ignorance and thus is not valued. Don’t worry about looking weak.  Asking the right questions can go a long way in improving as a listener.

The key phrase that I took away from the book was “humble inquiry.”  “Humble inquiry is the skill and art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person” [3]. This type of inquiry is not characterized by a specific set of questions. It is, however, based on minimizing our own preconceptions, assuming positive intent and clearing our minds at the beginning of a conversation. Asking the right type of questions to diagnose the situation at hand can be very helpful. Some good questions to consider include:

  1. Why do you suppose this happened?
  2. How do you feel about this?
  3. What may have caused this?
  4. Why did that happen?
  5. How did we get here?
  6. What are you/we going to do next?
  7. Go on …
  8. Can you give me an example?
  9. So … (with an expectant look)

These questions do not come across as confrontational; they are questions for which the answers are not immediately obvious and have the ability to influence the way you think and make you self-aware and more receptive to listening.

Another line of questioning to consider is to put the emphasis of the questioning on the conversation itself.  This form of questioning has the potential to get out of awkward or difficult conversations as it provides for both parties to restate and recalibrate their expectations [3]. Some good questions to consider include:

  1. What is happening here?
  2. Have we gone too far?
  3. What should I be asking you right now?
  4. Is this too personal?

Before leaping into debate, we should pause, clear our minds, ask the right questions, listen carefully and consciously to the other perspective and thus assess the situation better. The improved communication that arises as a result will be of great use when we deploy the right strategy to gain buy-in for a change project.

  1. Buy-In – Saving your Good Idea from Getting Shot down. John Kotter & Lorne Whitehead –
  2. William Ury – The Power of Listening
  3. Edgar H Schein – Humble Inquiry – The Gentle art of asking instead of telling –


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