Just listen will you!

Why doesn’t he just do what I tell him?’ Have you ever asked yourself that question? And do you then immediately blame the other person? Well I’ve got good and bad news for you. The good news is: it might well be that the other person is to blame. The bad news is that the reason your question doesn’t have the desired effect is probably you. Let’s take a closer look at two common causes of this situation.

The first is simply a question of incorrect thinking. Namely, that you are assuming that when you ask someone to do something, that person will automatically act towards completing whatever task you had in mind. Unfortunately, before anyone can take action, the following five steps need to be taken into consideration.

Asking does not necessarily mean that the other person has heard you.

  1. They may have heard but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have understood you.
  2. They may have understood you but that doesn’t necessarily mean they see it as a ‘call to action’.
  3. They may have seen it as a call to action but that doesn’t necessarily mean they feel responsible.
  4. They may feel responsible but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will take action.

In other words, when you ask your question, you will need to perform five checks. Is the other person really listening to you (and how do you know that)? Does he understand what you’re saying (can he for example repeat what you have said in his own words)? Does the other person consider what you’re saying simply as a statement or as a concrete call to action (how clear have you been about this)? Will he accept responsibility or does he just acknowledge it (did you ask for commitment)? And finally, what agreements do you make with each other about deadlines, feedback and progress reporting? Paying attention to these five steps will greatly increase the chances that your question or request will lead to the desired action. These steps are of course even more crucial if the language being spoken is not the native language of one or both partners.

The second common reason why a question doesn’t automatically lead to action has everything to do with the level at which you listen to each other. Yes you’re right, this is an elaboration of the first step I defined. Just to get you into the mood of this theme, take a quick look at this short Dilbert cartoon film.

There are five levels of listening, ranging from ‘not listening’ to ‘empathetic listening’:

  1. Not listening. While you’re talking to someone, they are busy doing other things or deep in thought about something totally different and they just don’t hear you. And despite all that, you carry on talking! Does that sound a bit far-fetched? If only! Just look around you at the next meeting you attend.
  2. Pretending to listen. Anyone who has children will know this level. While you’re working, or occupied with something you consider important, your child asks you for something or excitedly tells you about what he’s just seen or done. And as you continue to concentrate on whatever it is you were doing, you intersperse his story with ‘Oh yes, well well, wow, great’ but all the while you actually have no idea what he’s talking about. Sound familiar?
  3. Selective listening. At this third level you’re listening to the other person but you’ve set up a filter: ‘What information do I consider important/what am I interested in?’ You only listen to understand what he’s saying or pose questions when the information meets one or both of these criteria. You tune out the rest of the information, so no real conversation is taking place.
  4. Listening attentively. You’re listening now to understand what the other person is saying. What is he actually saying and what does he expect from you? This level is very much based on facts. You’re listening ’literally’ to what the other person is saying and you base you conclusions purely on this information.
  5. Empathetic listening. At this level you’re listening to the words and facts as well as elements of body language such as intonation, volume, facial expressions and other non-verbal signals. This enables you to listen ‘between the lines’ and the result is a fuller picture. You might want to read our earlier article on body language.

My proposition is this: if the person asking the question and the person being asked both take responsibility to run through all 5 steps of the questioning process, and if both listen to each other at least at level 4 (listening attentively), then every question asked will result in the desired action. I challenge you to put my proposition to the test in the coming weeks by consciously ‘playing’ with the 5 levels and observing the impact that has. And if you send me the results of your little experiment by responding to my blog, I would love to read them!

Enjoy your question-and-answer game!

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