You’ve just been promoted to supervisor, and you want to build a good relationship with your manager.  “What can I say to help her trust me?” you wonder.  “How can I tell her I’m the best pick for this job?”

Or you’re ready to get back into the dating scene.  You know some places to meet potential dating partners, but you’ve never been good at small talk.  “How much should I disclose about myself when we first meet?”  “What’s the right thing to say?”

You’re asking the wrong questions.

It’s almost always better to listen your way into a new relationship rather than trying to talk your way into one.

Why?  Because of what might be called the physics of interpersonal relationships.  The equivalent of the law of gravity is the fact that each human is unique.  Unless you’re an identical twin, the probability that any other human has your genetic makeup is less than one in a billion trillion.  And as you’ve probably discovered, even identical twins experience the world differently.  Since each of us is unique, it follows that whenever two uniquenesses meet, there’ll necessarily be differences.  Of course, there are similarities too, and the point of communication is to turn potential cultural, generational, occupational, and even family similarities into connections.

But when you try to talk your way into a relationship, you have to build connections with guesswork—your ability to predict or infer the other person’s interests, preferences, opinions.  When you begin with listening, you’re setting up the situation to start with something a lot closer to facts—first-hand information about where the other person is coming from, from the horse’s mouth.


A Listening Mind-Set

            The first, and for some people the most difficult step toward effective listening is to adopt the right mind-set.  You have to take seriously the old adage that, since you have two ears and only one mouth, you need to listen twice as much as you speak.  This is the mind-set of the person who, when he hears someone who disagrees with him, walks up to that person and says, “You see things differently.  I need to listen to you.”  It’s the mind-set of the boss who seeks out the least-satisfied subordinate, sits down with her over coffee, and asks her for candid feedback.  It’s the mind-set of the person who researches a presentation advocating database B by interviewing highly satisfied users of database A.  It’s the mind-set of a person with the courage and humility to proactively reach outside his or her own frame of reference.

Importantly, this mind-set cannot successfully be taken on as a manipulative strategy; in other words, genuine listening can’t successfully be faked.  The person who tries to “empathically listen the shirt right off your back” violates the trust of her conversation partners and seriously risks being caught red-handed.  Why?  People generally know when they’re being conned, and this kind of insincerity can mark a person permanently.  If you honestly don’t care about where the other person’s coming from, don’t pretend that you do.  But if you want to connect, maybe even profoundly, start by taking in information, not giving it out.  This doesn’t mean that you should refuse to offer your own opinions or disclose relevant feelings.  But, especially early on, emphasize listening.

            Good listening is more than silent soaking-up of what the other person says.  When you’re in the right mind-set, effective listening is about 40% talk, and the talk consists of questions, probes, and perception-checks.

Ask Questions

The main thing to know about questions is that there are literally dozens of different types, and a good listener is able to use at least ten.  The basic distinction, which you probably already know, is between closed and open questions.  “How many people attended?” and “Do you agree?” are both closed, because they call for single-word or single-fact answers.  “What do you think about this?” is an open question because it asks for a response, not just an answer.  Both can be useful, and open questions obviously prompt the most conversation.

One master teacher offers this list of useful questions:

  • ·      Information-seeking    “How many people showed up last time?”
  • ·      Diagnostic                   “What’s your analysis of the problem?
  • ·      Challenge/testing         “What evidence supports your conclusion?”
  • ·      Prediction                    “If your conclusions are correct, how might  the school board respond?”
  •        Hypothetical                 “What would have happened if we would have gotten the grant?”
  •        Extension                     “What happens if you extend your reasoning into another budget year?”
  •        Priority                        “Given the limited resources, what’s the first step?  The second?

The most familiar taxonomy of questions is linked to the educator Benjamin Bloom. Each question type works best at a different point in the conversation.


QUESTION TYPE                                       KEY WORDS
   Knowledge Tell, describe, list, define, identify, show, label, collect, examine, tabulate, quote, name, who, when, where, how, etc.  “Describe your experience with local law enforcement.”
   Comprehension Extend, summarize, interpret, contrast, predict, associate, distinguish, estimate, differentiate, discuss, etc.  “How do you interpret what you’ve experienced?
   Application Apply, show, demonstrate, calculate, complete, illustrate, solve, examine, modify, relate, change, classify, experiment, discover, etc.  “If your interpretation is right, how would you apply it to the police department’s hiring policies and practices?”
   Analysis Analyze, separate, order, explain, connect, classify, arrange, compare, divide, select, explain, infer, etc.  “In addition to your personal experience, what else do you think is going into your interpretation?”
   Synthesis Combine, integrate, modify, rearrange, substitute, plan, create, design, invent, what if?, compose, formulate, prepare, generalize, rewrite, etc.

“What happens when you combine your view with the others you’ve heard today?”

   Evaluation Evaluate, test, measure, decide, assess, rank, grade, test, recommend, select, judge, discriminate, support, conclude, summarize, etc.  “Could you evaluate your interpretation?  How well does it move us toward doing the right thing?”


These lists should suggest how you can create your own question types, adapted to your conversation partner and the topics of your talk.

Two questions to avoid are those that begin with “Why” and pseudoquestions.  “Why?” questions can create problems because they tend to create defensiveness.  People ask “Why” questions because it’s important to understand the reasons behind what a person thinks and believes.     You’re more likely to learn these reasons, though, when you ask, “How did you decide to do that?” rather than “Why did you do that?” and “Tell us your reasons” rather than “Why do believe that?”  When you listen to these two “Why?” questions, you can get a sense of the problem.  “Why” tends to call for a justification, a defense of an opinion.  The other formulations just ask for a description of the steps or process that led up to the current view.

Pseudoquestions are statements masquerading as questions. “Do you think it’s safe to drive this fast?” actually means something like “I’m afraid” or “Please slow down!”  “Who do you think you are?” “Do you realize what time it is?” and “Are you sure you want to do that?” are similarly sneaky.  Or at least misleading.  

Two educators call the art of questioning “the most important intellectual ability [the hu]man has yet developed.” As you hone your conversation skills, give it the attention it deserves.


If you ask, “What makes you think so?” and he responds, “Because I’ve done this before,” you could probe his response by gently asking, “With the same client (software/time constraints/pricing)?”  If you ask, “What’s the best way to approach this?” and she responds, “Very carefully,” you can probe “Yes, I get that, but how’s the best way to start?” or “What are the main things that can go wrong?”  The point of a probe is not to zap your conversation partner but to encourage them to develop the response they just gave you.  Probes can help you keep the conversational ball in the other person’s court.

In practice, effective probes require the art of the immediate.  While the person is responding to you, you need to be paying attention to as much as possible of what’s going on.  What happened in the last few seconds?  How confident does the speaker sound?  How did the she conclude what she was saying?  Does she need to be challenged?  Encouraged?  Supported?  You have seconds to decide and to formulate a way to encourage the person to further develop their ideas.


            Every listening teacher encourages people to paraphrase, and for good reasons.  An effective paraphrase is one of the most useful listening skills you can apply.  A paraphrase is a restatement of the other person’s meaning in your own words, concluded with a verification check.  “So you’re concerned that if we go in this direction, it will be even worse than last year, right?”

You can also check what you’ve heard with versions of, “It sounds like you’re saying. . . ,” “In other words, you believe. . . ,” or “I hear you saying that. . . .”  If you over-use this kind of statement or are insincere, people will feel manipulated.  So be sure that your perception-checks reflect a genuine desire to understand.

A mirror response can also help you check your understanding.  You repeat (mirror back) a key word that the other person’s just used, with enough of a questioning inflection to encourage him or her to elaborate.  “I’m worried about us moving too fast.”  “Too fast?”  “Yeah, the last time I. . . .”

Another way to check your perception is by paraphrasing what your conversation partner’s said, adding your two cents, and then inviting a response.  “So you believe IBM can support the technology with a client our size.  I think we’ll get lost in the shuffle and we should go with the smaller supplier.  But what experiences have you had with IBM?”

The focus of your listening should be some combination of the four qualities that make people human:  Their uniqueness, choices, ESP (emotions-spirit-psyche), and their reflective mindfulness.  Every time you successfully “pull” information about these from your conversation partner, you set up the opportunity for you to respond in kind—with relevant aspects of your own uniqueness, choices, ESP, and reflective mindfulness.  When this happens,  the two of you can meet, person-to-person.