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Answers To Questions That Nobody Is Asking

I was having a conversation last week when the person I was talking to said, “That’s not a bad answer, but it doesn’t answer the question I asked you.”

I hadn’t been listening as well as I thought I had. She didn’t care what I thought she was asking, she cared about what she thought she was asking. And I couldn’t blame her for that, so I resolved to listen better over the course of the day.

And as I went through the day, I had to ask many questions of other people. It’s part of my job. And more often than not, people answered my questions before I was completely finished asking them.

One of my goals this month is to listen twice as much as I talk. Hopefully this will result in people getting the answers they want, not necessarily the answers I want to give.

Do you consider yourself a good listener? If so, has it always been that way?


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  • Bamboo Forest - Tick Tock Timer June 1, 2010, 12:05 am

    I try to be a good listener, but sometimes I hear a tidbit the person is saying to me and want to respond to it as soon as possible, which compromises my listening.

    I’ll work on it.

  • cinderkeys June 1, 2010, 12:54 am

    If you even wait until the person is done asking to answer, you’re a better listener than most.

    My rules of listening:

    1. Don’t jump in until the other person is done.

    2. Don’t think about what you’re going to say next. Or, if you do, try to keep it to a minimum.

    3. Say “Mmm hmmm” and “uh huh” a lot.

    I don’t know why this is so hard for people, but if you can master those three things (or even just fake it by doing only #1 and #3), your friends will love you.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 1, 2010, 11:25 am

      I’m going to make a t shirt with those rules.

  • Amy Harrison June 1, 2010, 2:56 am

    I used to think that finishing other people’s sentences was a sign of being having a special bond…

    I’ve tried it a few times with my boyfriend and I can see it just annoys the hell out of him. We laugh about it because I think we’re being super close and he just wants to put duct tape over my mouth.

    Lesson learned 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne June 1, 2010, 11:26 am

      You get a pass because you use the words chuffed. Don’t let him put duct tape over your mouth!

  • Mitch June 1, 2010, 4:15 am

    Most people are just waiting to talk. It’s amazing how many of us do NOT listen. For the most part there aren’t really a lot of conversations, just a lot of people talking to, or over each other.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 1, 2010, 11:26 am

      Wow–what a sad thought, but one that I can’t argue with.

  • Dov Gordon June 1, 2010, 5:52 am

    I’m a great listener… and I’m a lousy listener.

    Peter Drucker pointed out that listening isn’t a skill so much as a discipline: Shut up.

    Well, I think there is skill in knowing what to listen for and in asking good follow up questions and I’m good at that.

    But there’s no doubt that the discipline of shutting up and really hearing what the other person says is where you really make yourself stand out.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 1, 2010, 11:27 am

      Standing out by being quiet–interesting.

      • Dov Gordon June 2, 2010, 8:41 am


        A few years back I met 1 – 1 with a member of our parliament in a hotel lobby for an hour.

        Afterwards, I did some work at a nearby table while the MP held another meeting.

        When his second meeting finished the person he met with passed my table and said “Mr. MP thinks you are really, really smart.”

        While I valued the compliment, I wondered what I had said that made him think I’m so smart so I could use it again.

        Then it hit me: I had listened and asked questions. He talked for 95% of the time.


  • John June 1, 2010, 6:55 am

    I think “cinderkeys” makes a great point…don’t think about what you’re going to say next. I coach people all day on being better listeners, and this is the most common mistake that I see. People are already focused on what they will say next, and they stop listening to everything from that point forward. I’ve found that one of the keys for me to be a better listener is to pause for 2-3 seconds after the person I’m speaking with has stopped. At first it feels like forever and this really akward pause, but it lets me make sure that the other person has finished their thought and that I’m not stepping all over them to get my thoughts in 🙂

    It’s a great topic though, I have a sign in my office as a reminder to myself and my coworkers that says “listening is a skill.” Like any skill, you need to practice to get better.

    Cheers everyone!

    • Josh Hanagarne June 1, 2010, 11:27 am

      John, what is your job? Have you had a lot of success with this?

      • John June 1, 2010, 11:57 am

        I’m a sales manager. It’s weird…the people that work for me are generally new to the company (and sometimes new to sales) and they think it is this huge complicated process. It’s really just listening to people, figuring out what their problems are, and then help them solve that problem. Pretty simple when you think about it, but difficult to execute….usually because they aren’t listening (or not listening carefully). If you don’t do the first part right, you can’t do the rest 🙂

        When I am having a coaching session with one of my team members, I will be on the phone with them and in some cases actually hold my hand up to signal them to resist that urge to immediately respond to what the customer has just said. It’s amazing how differently our calls with customers go when you hold back that extra second to let the customer finish his/her thought.

  • Heather June 1, 2010, 7:35 am

    Cinderkeys makes some VERY good points! Part of why I prefer answering questions in e-mail or letter or online chat format. . . yes, it’s easier to “hide” behind a screen, but often, with the written word, it’s much easier to get to the point, and/or to get the point across. I have also been given the impression that when someone “answers” my question before it has officially left my mouth, they are being rude, dismissive, and simply can’t be bothered, which often makes me seek my own answers in books, magazine articles, or online. As far as people finishing my sentences for me. . . I used to get into lots of fights that way, but now I just walk away, assuming that that person would rather hear their own voice, than any response some other, possibly real (but, to them, more than likely not really) human being may or may not have (“When you hang up the phone, do you cease to exist?”). Kudos to John for his sign about listening, and that listening is, indeed, a skill. Kudos to you, Josh, for opening this topic to discussion! I’m sure I’ve offended or irritated someone with my response, but this wouldn’t be this first time. . . . probably won’t be the last, either! 😉

    • Josh Hanagarne June 1, 2010, 11:28 am

      Those are actually many of the reasons why I hate the online environment. It’s relatively consequence free.

      • Heather June 1, 2010, 11:46 am

        I wouldn’t call it consequence-free. If I screw up or offend someone, I ALWAYS make a point of stating so. I am also one of those irritating people who do a serious fact-check before I go posting an answer to a question. Takes me at least a couple centuries to respond, depending on what’s asked. I would say that the online environment is rather chilly, though, and not nearly as friendly and warm as talking to a living, breathing human face-to-face.

        • Josh Hanagarne June 1, 2010, 11:54 am

          You’re right, Heather. I’m thinking more in terms of people acting bolder or more aggressively online than they ever would in person. They do it because they can get away with it.

          • Heather June 2, 2010, 8:06 am

            Yeah. . . . but some of those people really, really suck. 🙂 “Flaming” I believe is what it’s called? This is still a great post, though, and the comments and discussion have been interesting! 🙂

  • Square-Peg Karen June 1, 2010, 10:23 am

    I used to be a great listener (and rarely talked) – then I became a great talker (and rarely listened – sad, indeed). NOW I’m working on some kind of balance = great listening when someone else is talking & great talking when someone is listening.

    Did I answer your question? – I’m not sure I was listening (only kidding there).

    • Josh Hanagarne June 1, 2010, 11:29 am

      I can’t even remember what my question was:)

    • Dov Gordon June 2, 2010, 8:45 am

      I’d love to know how you became a great talker.

  • Boris Bachmann June 1, 2010, 11:21 am

    I’ve become a much better listener since getting married and having a child. Undistracted listening is something I work on at work and at home – getting better, but still tough to do when under stress and time constraints.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 1, 2010, 11:30 am

      I’ve experienced the same thing. Janette probably hasn’t gotten all the benefit out of it that Max has, and that’s on me, but I feel bad when I realize I’m trying to pay attention to him while I’ve got 100 other things on my mind.

  • Andy Fogarty June 1, 2010, 11:24 am

    I used to think I was a good listener… then I got married and found out I’m really not that good 😉

    I think being business has had a huge influence on how I really listen to people. I hate to say it, but the more I think about it the more I realize I’m always looking for the hidden agenda in the question. Sad, but true.

    I’m in for your challenge. I really do need to listen to the questions being asked and not what I’m trying to make them out to be.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 1, 2010, 11:30 am

      there seems to be a trend emerging with the married men:)

  • I am a terrible listener and in the past have just waited for the person to finish so I could say the thing that I was dying to say. Since I now know that I am doing it, it is something that I am trying very hard to undo. It’s kind of like talking to a squirrel. I also find “something shiny” to catch my attention and interrupt what the other person is saying.

    I think it is something that you are born with, but I also believe that you can make a conscious effort to undo it. Blogging helps a lot with that, because you have to really “listen” to the other person when they need honest help from you.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  • Mitch June 1, 2010, 7:31 pm

    I believe that most of us have been guilty of the waiting to talk/interrupt/talk over people syndrome at some point in our lives. It truly is amazing what can happen for you in all of your realtionships when you shut up and apply yourself to listening.

  • Gina June 1, 2010, 10:16 pm

    I am a horrible listener!
    It all started in kindergarten when I received “excellent” marks in every category, but a “need improvement” in listening.
    I still need improvement!
    I think I will join you in the JUNE:Be a better listener month.

  • Todd June 2, 2010, 12:44 pm

    I’m a diplomatic kind of guy. I tend to listen pretty well before I pipe up. However, if I’m grumpy, or just don’t feel like it, I tend to be the “answer before the question is finished” kind of guy.

  • Blaine Moore June 2, 2010, 1:31 pm

    I’ve made a conscious effort the past few years to be a better listener. It’s aggravating when somebody doesn’t let you finish asking your question.

    There’s one person I work with in particular that assumes you aren’t listening if you answer before she finishes talking…which is problematic because she pauses a lot and never actually stops so it’s tough to keep your focus. I’d say that it’s rare that I didn’t answer her question, but if I don’t give her the extra 5 or 10 minutes to ask then it takes at least 30 because I have to reword my answer at least 3 times in order for her to give up on getting a solution for me. Then I have to go through it again later that day or the next day when she’ll accept the answer even though it’s the same as it was earlier.

    Interacting with her taught me just how annoying it was so I’ve gotten better at avoiding that sort of behavior myself.

  • Tammi Kibler June 2, 2010, 2:10 pm

    I am a very “get to the point” kind of listener and I am working on allowing people to say their piece without expressing my lack of patience.

    Somewhere along the line I got very good at appearing to listen to my children when I am in fact focused on something else (like driving.) Shameful, I know, and I have to improve my conversation skills. I think I’ll let them do the driving.

    One thing I have found helps me is echoing what was said to be sure I understood the question or main points of the conversation. Then at least the person knows I was trying to pay attention and has an opportunity to correct my misconceptions. This buys me time to frame an answer, which allows me to stop trying to build it in advance.

    As long as there is something to learn, life is worth living, yes?

    • Josh Hanagarne June 2, 2010, 3:35 pm

      If I can’t be curious, I don’t want to be alive. You got it.

  • PicsieChick June 3, 2010, 8:07 am

    My natural tendency is to use a lot of words. I like words, they kind of fascinate me with their colourful imagery, and yet inability to convey actual thoughts and feelings in their fullness. But I digress.

    And that’s generally my problem. I have random powers of observation.

    That’s not a superhero-ish as it sounds, either.

    If I’m in a conversation I’m likely to forget whatever I have to bring to it by the time the other person or people are talking. So I tend to contribute a lot of conversational noises (mmm. ahhhh. etc). Sometimes I think to ask good questions. Occasionally I find something to contribute, although usually not as brilliant as whatever I had thought of earlier, and lost, in the stream of conversation.

    Usually I think of the best comments and questions long after the conversation has ended. Which is a fabulous reason for communicating online…..the delay is natural. 🙂

    The interesting thing out of all of this? I’ve been called a good listener by a lot of people. (and often been called smart, much like Dov’s experience) They have no idea of my inner struggle to let my own voice be heard (by me, even). The outward appearance is that I have learned this important skill. Inwardly, I know the reasons are not nearly so altruistic.

    I do, however, sometimes finish another’s sentences or answer a question before it is finished, particularly when I’m in a hurry. I’ll bring more awareness to this and actually practice those listening skills. Great topic, as usual, Josh!

    Hugs and butterflies,

  • Jenn June 3, 2010, 10:47 pm

    I do not come from a family of good listeners. My husband is however an fantastic listener. Over the years he has helped me improve my listening skills tremendously. Due to not feeling heard as a child good listening skills are one of the first things I notice about people. It is also one of the things I feel the most guilty about when I don’t do it.

  • Vicki June 7, 2010, 4:10 pm

    I used to work with someone who loved to talk and seemed to have a conversational style that almost asked for interruptions. She would talk for a long time about an issue and then she would begin to repeat herself until someone would interrupt her.