Ask A Question
We are asked so often,
How can I be a better listener?
It’s a common question we get when speaking to groups about our listening and listening training work. Most people want to know how they can be better. That’s good. But they just don’t know how to start.
In answering, we say that it starts with what we believe about others – that we all have value – and about setting the space – both physically and emotionally – for Someone to feel safe and comfortable sharing beyond a surface level.
The next step is what we want to address today. It’s about enhancing the value of Someone and creating the best environment for them by asking the right questions and saying the right things for them to know that they have the permission to explore in conversation whatever they need to say to help lift burdens and validate the feelings they have.
These two permission-giving phrases – one a direct question and the other a quasi-question – can really help to begin a deeper and more effective conversation that brings relief, hope, and reassurance to Someone, especially the first time we are listening to them.
What would you like to tell us?
Tell me about yourself.
It’s incredible how that first simple open-ended question – What would you like to tell us? – gives Someone the freedom to share vulnerably, truthfully, and safely. It works over and over again.
It leaves a wide-open opportunity for Someone to tell their story the way they want and need to tell it, without boundaries, without us leading them in a direction that is not where they need to go, and letting them know that the stage is theirs to explore what they most need to explore.
The second, the quasi-question, we attribute to the great host of Fresh Air, the weekday radio interview program on National Public Radio, Terry Gross. She has been asked many, many times how she gets people to talk so openly and easily on her show, especially knowing that millions of people around the globe are listening to what they say. The four simple words that do it, she says, are – Tell me about yourself.
Her open-ended quasi-question also invites conversation that is less awkward, less shallow, and more prone to elicit fascinating answers.
In a November 2018 interview with the New York Times Ms Gross, who has interviewed thousands of guests over the course of her four-decade career, believes a principle value that those of us at Someone To Tell It To believe – that each person matters, that their story is important, and that it’s worthy of being heard and of her and her listeners’ time.
Tell me about yourself is a much better way to elicit a deeper, more interesting, and more complete answer than,
What do you do? or Where do you live? or How are you doing?
It engages the person in a more personal and meaningful way. It allows them the freedom to tell their story in the way they most need to tell it in order for the magic of transformation to happen in their lives.
Starting with the right questions and permission-giving phrases is a vital way of helping Someone feel as if they matter, as if their story is important, worthy of being heard, and worthy of our time. So many people feel as if they are not listened to well, as if they don’t really matter, as if their thoughts and concerns are not considered most of the time.
By simply phrasing the prompting questions we ask others in a more open-ended and permission-giving way, we are saying to them that we care about them as people. It’s about giving them an opening to be open and to feel safe to express that they are afraid or overwhelmed or uncertain. It’s about saying that we are safe people for them to say whatever they need to say to help them clarify what they are feeling.
It’s not asking,
Why did you do that? What makes you think that? Do you realize how badly you messed up?
Instead it’s offering responses such as,
Tell me more about how you were feeling. I’d love to hear about your thoughts when that happened to you. How would you react differently today if you had the chance to do it all over again?
Our job as listeners to anyone in our lives is to help bring light when things are dark, to offer comfort when Someone is hurting, to help calm a troubled spirit, to enable others to see hope when they see nothing but despair, to show love that transforms Someone’s heart when it is broken.
It’s to say that they are safe and that you are a safe person for them to share whatever they need to share. That you will not judge or tell them how bad or wrong they are. That you will accompany them as they try to find a way out of their dilemma, or burden, or pain.
It’s about helping them to find peace in a turbulent and troubled time, a peace that helps to carry them through to better days.
It’s what we all need from one another. And when the environment is set well by the comments we make and the thoughtful questions we ask, those better days will begin to come.
This is the third in a series of six statements about the values and objectives of Someone To Tell It To’s listening, training, and educational programs, in the weeks to come. Living these values is how we are helping the world to listen.