By Allison O'Brien
While mindlessly scrolling Instagram the other day, a video snippet of a Podcast caught my eye. The host asked his guest, “How can I ask better questions. Like, if you want better solutions, you have to learn how to ask better questions.”
The guest gave a very confusing answer. He said, “For me it was always pay attention and if it’s not working then you say, ‘why isn’t it working,’ and you start with a question.” I couldn’t quite follow. If what’s not working? Paying attention?
Of course, paying attention is paramount. Being fully present in conversation and limiting distractions is essential. However, understanding the science of listening and the brain is often the missing piece in collaborative problem-solving. Research proves that individuals have unique filters that they rely on when listening. Over time, we form cognitive habits and habitually listen to certain information while unconsciously filtering out other information. So simply paying attention isn’t always enough. Consciously listening to and for the things that you sometimes miss takes focus but can greatly improve conversational outcomes.
In full disclosure, I didn’t listen to the entire podcast, and his answer may have ultimately been perfectly spot on given the context, but initially he didn’t actually answer the question “How do we learn to ask better questions if we want better solutions?” If I had my chance to weigh in on that specific question, I would break it down very simply.
The key to asking better questions is Listening. Not just paying attention, but learning to leverage Listening Intelligence to harness the cognitive diversity of the group of individuals tasked with coming up with the best solution for a problem at hand. And this requires surfacing various viewpoints with the power of well-thought out questions.
If we’re unaware of the habitual filters we rely on when listening, we may unintentionally overlook critical information that could inform our perspective. This is where Listening Intelligence plays a key role. It starts with understanding our default preferences. When we develop this awareness, it becomes very clear that there are certain situations that call for different filters than we might habitually rely on. The ability to shift our listening based on the circumstances, the diverse people involved, and the intended outcome of the interaction is the skill called Listening Intelligence. An intentional commitment to listening to understand and learn, in order to ultimately improve the quality of conversation, is the foundation for asking better questions.
In a team meeting for example, when a problem is presented, one that requires collaborative decision-making, it starts with asking one open-ended question. The first question asked is the catalyst for deeper group thinking, especially when all parties to the conversation share the same commitment to listening versus responding. Through listening, not speaking, the next question is inspired. Each additional question uncovers more insight.
Asking open-ended questions is also a way to observe and assess what is important to others, i.e., what they care about, the deeper underlying issue or problem, the outcome they’re seeking etc., and sets the stage for thinking about a situation or problem at a deeper level and from different angles. Listening with the intent to learn and fully understand what is important to a speaker reveals what the deeper problem or opportunity may be. In other words, listening to learn is where the true opportunity lies for creating better solutions.
When teams consistently practice asking open ended questions, without a pressure to find an immediate answer, the questions get better and better, and the solutions become more innovative.
This question-centric approach to collaborative decisive-making goes against our conversational muscle memory. When practicing listening to inspire better questions, we have to resist the temptation to quickly answer and solve prematurely. This is extremely challenging at times because we are spring-loaded to respond and often feeling pressured by time.
So here is my challenge to you in the next conversation that requires innovative, solution oriented thinking. Initially, suppress the desire to solve and speak. Slow down the pace of the conversation and truly listen, and when appropriate, pose valuable questions. Notice what happens to the quality of the conversation, and ultimately, the quality of the solutions.