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The title of this blog could be a bit misleading, as a more accurate one might be Listening Effectively by Knowing When Not to Speak and, When You Do Talk, Knowing What to Say or Ask. That’s a mouthful. The point is that most people know that a key aspect of effective listening is not talking (of course, knowing that and practicing it are two different things).

However, it doesn’t work well if you are completely unresponsive and say nothing during a conversation. So, the challenge is to properly balance listening and speaking… and to say the right things when you do speak.

As an executive coach, leader, parent, etc., it is comforting for me to know that I don’t have to have all of the answers. I have also learned the value of asking good questions, at the right time. As discussed in our post What Makes Effective Questions… Effective?, good questions, among other benefits, get people to think, empower people, remove blocks and open people up to unexplored possibilities, improve interpersonal bonding, and build positive attitudes.

Effective questions also help you gain a better understanding about the person you’re speaking with, such as their interests and passions, their apprehensions and challenges, and their beliefs and rationale. But how do you uncover these insights while still being sensitive and non-judgmental, not being nosy or intrusive, and while striving to protect or improve the relationship, and not harm it?

The answer is to not only ask effective questions but to ask them in the right way. In regards to asking them the right way:

  • Have good intentions (ask to help, not to get)
  • Be curious
  • Aim to understand not just the “what” but also the “why”
  • Be open; set your biases aside
  • Don’t judge
  • Be empathetic; put yourself in their shoes
  • Be interested and engaged
  • Be mindful of your tone of voice and your body language

A few examples of effective questions include:

  • Why do you think that?
  • Why is this important to you?
  • Please tell me more about ___?
  • What’s an alternative?
  • What are the opportunities if there were no limitations?
  • What support do you need?
  • What new approach could you try?
  • Could you give me an example of ___?
  • Where do you feel stuck?
  • What needs your attention going forward?

Asking questions is a critical and often overlooked skill. The ability to utilize effective questioning has myriad benefits, as touched on earlier, including motivating reflection and action. The better you can learn to listen effectively by asking good questions in the right way, the more valuable a friend, coworker, manager, and resource you will be to others.

Extra: To learn about four different listening styles, read Taking Listening to the Next Level.