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  • Writer's pictureLin Sagovsky

The Spaces In Between…

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Spaces in Between

Most of us have probably met the guy in the cartoon at some point (let’s overlook the possibility that any of us might actually BE the guy in the cartoon…).

Dialogue is a two-way street, of course – but sometimes people think that showing an interest is about firing a relentless sequence of questions at the other person. From the receiving end, that can feel like an interrogation.

Even if you intend your questions to demonstrate genuine curiosity, posing one question after another can make a conversation feel one-sided. Richard Mullender, who knows an awful lot more about how to listen well than most people (including me), says:

"Every time you ask a question, you change the subject."

You what? Here’s his example (paraphrased):

Sarah says: “I’m going on holiday next week.”

What would be the most obvious question for you to ask at that point?

You: “Oh really – where?”

Sarah: “Spain.”

And Sarah and you have a conversation about going to Spain, and whereabouts, and whether she’s going with family or friends, staying in a villa or a hotel, and so on and so on. And that might be perfectly fine.

But what if it went like this?

Sarah: “I’m going on holiday next week.”

You are silent, listening intently.

Sarah (continuing after a moment.): “Yes – I can’t wait to get away; I’m so stressed from everything that’s been going on at work recently…”

…and you and Sarah have a whole different kind of conversation – all because you didn’t hijack what she had to say with a question that was actually about your agenda, not hers.

So the way you ask questions – or don’t – will make a big difference to the kind of conversations you have. Asking the right kind of questions in the right tone is a great way of testing your assumptions in order to check your understanding – as I said in the previous post.

It can also be a great way of taking charge – in a good way – when you need to air difficulties and negotiate a way forward. My colleague Tim Stockil of Ci: Creative intelligence puts it like this:

“The person who asks the questions controls the meeting.”

The right questions can be an excellent way of getting the other person not only to come up with ideas – but even better, to commit to carrying them out. If you merely attempt to browbeat them into agreeing with your solutions, they’re less likely to deliver. (And if you’re the type who tends always to allow others to ride roughshod over your ideas, your questions need to include firm requests: “I’ve listened to your views; please will you now let me finish explaining mine?”   You may need to say that more than once if you’re confronted with the guy in the cartoon.)

The point is, we all get into habits of questioning style. When I’m running roleplays on training courses, I often find that participants favour the string of ‘or’ questions fired one after another that I described at the end of the previous post. And I know my own habit of making a statement that masquerades as a question:

“I suppose that means the dates are all being pushed back?”

– as opposed to:

How does that affect the dates?”

The first is closed, and betrays an (often pessimistic) assumption; the second is open. What matters is less about judging one style better than another; more about recognizing your habits and being able to vary your style to suit different conversations. That includes the possibility that you give the conversation some ‘air’ and don’t immediately seek to fill silences – not even with interested ‘active listening’ stuff like: “Oh, that’s interesting.” “I see.” “ Uh-huh…” Even that is easy to overdo – unless you’re really listening.

Nancy Kline talks a lot about how hard we all find it not to interrupt each other, even when we think we’re being helpful and engaging. Lots of us have a tendency to ask a question, then ask the next question before the person has finished answering the one before. Even if they’re no longer actually speaking, you can still be interrupting their thinking. According to Nancy Kline, that’s crucial. Interruption doesn’t make for real connection. It makes the person feel they have to rush, and express half-formed thoughts, and leave things they wanted to say unsaid, because you’re so busy jumping in with the next question.

Try leaving the space. You’ll be surprised at the insights it opens up, and the impact that can have on your conversation (and, probably, so will they).

And listen to yourself asking questions – then see if you can adapt the way you phrase them. Some other style of question…. or even saying nothing at all… may make all the difference.

Mayn’t it?

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