Improve your listening by enhancing the quality of your conversations

So you are in yet another meeting. The conversation is flying back and forth yet you feel frustrated by the lack of people really listening to each other. In fact, you find yourself waiting for a ‘gap’ in the conversation so you can throw your two cents worth into the debate.

The meeting ends. Everyone respectfully nods at each and walks out feeling that the meeting was largely a waste of time, again! You wonder why so many of the meetings that you attend seem to go around and around without people really listening to each other. You try to listen yourself but you find that your listening is just as bad as everyone else’s. The real cost as a result of the time wasted in these meetings seems to high to even calculate. Yet the problem persists.

Yes you have been to communication workshop after communication workshop. But it seems that learning to become a better listener is like shouting at grass to grow. Just because someone says that you should listen and paraphrase and watch your body language doesn’t actually mean that you’ll become a better listener, just like grass won’t grow any faster just because someone is shouting at it!

What if there was a technique that enabled you to become a better listener, yet didn’t require you to specifically focus on listening?

If you shift your focus away from becoming a better listener to becoming a contributor to higher quality conversations, it is amazing how your listening improves! Higher quality conversations or Conversations That Matter® enable us to see things differently; new horizons, new possibilities, new ways of working together which result in tangible benefits such as new innovative products, new savings, better efficiencies. As Juanita Brown and David Isaacs shared in their wonderful book, The World Cafe, “…accepting the centrality of human conversation as a key organisational means for achieving desired results entails a profound shift of mind – from seeing conversation as a peripheral activity to seeing conversation as one of the organizations most valuable assets.”

So how do you even start to create this profound shift of mind?

One way is to start to focus on the quality of the questions that you ask in a conversation. Think about it. What positive difference to the quality of conversations that you participate in would an improved quality of questions (even from just one person), make to that group’s conversation? Brown and Isaacs suggest that focusing on the right questions themselves is a powerful way to enable people to open their minds to higher quality conversations. For example, what if in one of the meetings described above you asked, “What questions, if answered, would enable us to achieve the results that we truly desire?”
Part of the reason for the consistently low quality of conversation that many of us experience in organisations is due to the fact that most people are focusing on answers rather than discovering the right questions that are worthy of an answer. For example, how easy would you find it to come up with questions in response to the question above, without trying to answer your own questions first? It is my experience that many people are uncomfortable focusing on generating questions (without answers) largely because it is a skill that has had little attention or focus throughout their development.

At your next meeting, as you follow the conversation, try focusing on this question, “What’s the most powerful question that I could ask that will help to improve the quality of this team’s conversation?”.

A side benefit of focusing on asking powerful questions is that your listening will improve, without you having to focus on it. Try it, you will see that this is true.

I’m interested in hearing about your experiences with regard to enhancing the quality of your workplace conversations through improving your questioning skills.

If you are interested in discovering how to ask ‘Questions That Matter®’ you may wish to join my free webinar on that topic on Thursday 22nd October, 2010. Please register here if you are interested.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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