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To communicate effectively we all have to master the art of listening to understand rather than just listening to respond. I remember as a young sales person attending a short course on open ended and closed questions. We all know that an open ended question simply means that you get on interesting answer rather than just the yes or no answer that we get from closed questions. There is however nothing wrong with closed questions. They have their place but if we really want to get information, we have to of course use open ended questions.

We learnt about open-ended questions and I prided myself on the good open ended questions that I was producing. My instructor said he was very happy with them and then we had to do a role playand use them in practice. I prepared 5 very carefully worked out‘open ended’ questions to ask. The client (i.e. the person taking the role play) and I commenced the meeting where he responded well to my questions.I was very happy with the information he was sharing. I allowed him to finish before moving on to my next question. The same thing happened with each of my 5 questions where each time I sat back and allowed him to answer before moving on to my next question.

After about 5 minutes I had run out of questions. I said to the person taking the call “Thank you for the time I have spent with you today. It has really been interesting. Could I make an appointment to come and see you at another time to take it to the next level?” He replied“What would you be coming to see me about when you take it to the next level?” I said that I would like to find out more about his business and he said “why don’t you do that right now?” I panicked and said that I had run out of my 5 questions. I had worked out my very carefully worded 5 questions and he answered them very well for me. But I came to the end of them and that took all of five minutes and then I had nothing more to ask.

So what went wrong here! If we analyze it, I was clearly not listening to the answers. I was asking good open ended questions and he was endeavoring to explain and answer them, but I wasn’t listening carefully to understand what he was telling me. Therein lies the problem. All I was doing was thinking about my next question while he was answering my first question.

I think we can all relate to situations where we have done exactly that. So after the 5 minutes my questions had run out and I had nothing more to talk about. What ‘listening to understand’ is all about is that when you ask the question and you get the detailed answer, listen carefully to what’s been said, so that your next question can be based on what you have just heard. Not what you have written down on your piece of paper. That is the difference between listening to respond or listening to understand. Listening to understand is all about basing your next question on what you have just heard. In that way, your questions will flow naturally and you never run out of them. Your pre-prepared questions simply get the ball rolling and thereafter it feeds itself.

So we can liken that to what we call the listening staircase. If we imagine a question being asked and then we get the answer, we then pause and think through what we have just heard. We base our next question on what we have just heard. Ask the next question, get the answer and while that person is talking, think about (understand) what they are telling you so that you base your next question on what you have just heard and in that way gain a fuller understanding.

Short cource in listen using the listening staircase

We call that the listening staircase,but there is another more common word that we use for this; it’s called ‘talking’. When you talk that is exactly what you do. You speak, people answer, you inquire further, you probe about what they have said and they respond…..simple conversation that results in understanding what is being discussed. That is what communication is all about. We do it very naturally when we are talking but the moment we get into a business situation where we have to think about open ended questions, we get ourselves into a state of confusion and forget the basics.

So let’s get into the habit of asking the question, listening intently to the answer before moving to our next line of questioning. Listening to the answer allows us to base our next question on something that we have just heard…..not what on our pre-prepared list.

Go down that listening staircase and at the bottom is the proverbial pot of gold which is the understanding that you are trying to gain from that conversation. So if we converse in this way then we are effectively going to be ‘listening to understand and not ‘listening to respond’.

The net result is that you will have an understanding of what you are trying to ascertain. If you don’t do that you are going to walk away not having moved the ball forward in the slightest and this short course will not benefit you. So if we want to understand the people that we are interacting with, we must get into the habit of the listening staircase; listening to understand and not just listening to respond.