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Listening: Questions

If you've spoken other languages or dialects, you know that we may say the same "word" but mean very different things.

In pre-marital counseling, my ex and I used the same exact words for "our values." We meant different things. Same words; same language—different definitions.

Two "normal" / everyday ways of talking:

  1. Monologue - Monologue

  2. Person 1 - Question - Person 1 Answer - Person 2 spin-off of that

With "Monologue - Monologue" we assume we know what the person is saying. With "...Person 2 spin-off..." we assume we know what that person is saying.

The problem? We don't hear each other. We're reacting and responding to what isn't real.

The alternative?

For the past 7 years, since my divorce, I have been rigorously trained (formally, directly, specifically) in a new way of listening. I learned to ask questions.

"You just used the word, '____,' when you said we'd be successful if we were that. Can you say more about what that means to you?"

Something happens when you don't assume you know. When we feel like someone wants to see and hear us, we come to life. And when we come to life, it's contagious. We start to learn, connect, grow and collaborate (together! It becomes social) out of a different place.

And, in the "...Person 2 spin-off..." way of relating, we hear something we "know" or have experienced, and that's what we spin-off into. We all know what it feels like when that happens in the most extreme sense. When we're in a conversation and talking about an experience, and someone early on says: "Oh yeah, that happened to me...." before they ever really got what your experience was, its impact and its relevance to the relationship or conversation. That's a great way to keep things thin or empty—and keep conversations short and move on. That can make the conversation feel unsatisfying—as if you're relating, but not connecting really.

Why do we listen this way as the normal, everyday listening style? Lots of reasons.

"That's the way the world works, right? Business is business."

"Just talking to you is going out of my way, so that should be enough."

  • We're in a hurry.

  • We don't know what we're doing; haven't thought about it before.

  • We don't really care or want to care (because we don't feel cared for ourselves).

  • We've been formally trained in ways of relating that we're consciously or subconsciously emulating as "best" or "successful."

There's this phrase in English "put into words." Often its used for writers: "They put into words what I was feeling!" There's endless nerdery in linguistics and the social sciences (I have 10+ books right now I could cite from my bookshelves!) about how words are just imperfect, mediocre shells of meaning. They don't even do meaning justice! And, the crazy thing is that, In any given experience, what we actually take away aren't the words at all!, but a feeling. The body language we witnessed. The vibe. I have a shirt that says "Vibes speak louder than words." Even the way a room is lit or set-up can impact how the communication or experience feels.

Sometimes we're just reacting and not responding to what's actually going on. Why? Our way of relating.

So, what do we do?

First of all, stop and notice.

What's normal for you in your listening?

After a conversation, stop and think—what questions did I ask? Where did those come from? Was that me trying to understand where they were coming from and what they were trying to put to words? How did I show up? Did I have a chip on my shoulder? Was I distracted? How do I want to show up?

Second, inside your bones—in your heart and mind—open up to the possibility of something new. Even say out loud (right now)—"I want to try something new. I'm open that another way of being is possible."

A few tips. These come from integrated bio-psycho-social-spiritual sciences:

  • Go into experiences intentionally. It could be a conversation, a meeting, a conference or big event. Before you go, notice what biases, expectations, assumptions, and even emotions you are carrying into the experience. Decide how you want to be. Do you want to be open? Maybe surprised? Maybe to understand? Maybe to see what you haven't seen before? Hold an intention that's connected to how you want to be or feel, not what you want to "get out of it."

  • Breathe. Our bodies (brains included!) function best when we're not clenched, tense or holding in breath or having shallow exhales.

  • Look with your eyes. And not just eye-to-eye contact intensity. Take in people's body language, facial expressions, eye contact or lack thereof. Really see them. Not in an intense, analytical way. That'd be weird! Just in a way of being present and aware.

  • Step up / Step back. Step up to asking questions to understanding. Step back from interjecting, interrupting or spinning-off the conversation.

Try it out. How was that? What was new? What felt good? What do you want more of? What do you want less of? What did you learn?

Go team.

Cheers to real life—the messy and the beautiful.


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