Questions Are Easy. Listening Is Hard.

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At a dinner gathering, Friday night…

New friend: I watch Good Life Project, it’s amazing.

Me: Thanks, I just ask questions, the guests make it what it is. They’re incredible people.

New Friend: That’s not really true. You ask great questions, that’s a big part of if and that’s not easy to do.

Me: Questions are easy. Listening is hard.

New Friend:  Hmmm…

When you listen deeply, the right questions come naturally. Hearts open. Stories tumble. Conversations soar. Magic happens.

The reason behind this is a bit sad. People are so rarely seen and heard these days—on a true-nature level—that when you give them the gift of sustained attention, it’s like removing a source of deep pain. The world outside ceases to exist.

Next-level ideas, needs, insights, stories and revelations come out. And, if you’re paying attention, it’s impossible to not want to know more. So you ask questions out of a genuine sense of curiosity. And the conversation goes places that’d never have been visited had you stayed “on-script.”

This is as true in a business or sales setting as it is in life. I began to cultivate this skill taking depositions in a past life as a newbie S.E.C. enforcement attorney.

The few times I’ve felt interviews go off the rails, it’s because I’ve lost focus. I’m no longer there, stuck in “I need to look good so I’m gonna pretend to listen while actually fabricating my next blockbuster question” land.

When you check out, people know. And the possibility of sublime moments and deep connections evaporates.

If you’re going to develop one transformative skill, make it sustained-attention or presence.

It will trump the benefits of nearly any other ability.

With gratitude,

Jonathan

 

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35 responses

35 responses to “Questions Are Easy. Listening Is Hard.”

  1. Vincent says:

    Active listening is HUGE and you’re right when you say people are rarely heard. It’s easy to find someone who can pretend to listen but you can easily tell when you’re being actively listened to. I’ll admit, I used to be terrible at listening. Why? Because like most other people, I was eager to talk and get my own words in. Learning to be 100% engaged leads to better conversations and relationships.

    • Patty Gordon says:

      I remember reading your earlier post about taking depositions and how powerful that was for me. It’s still such a necessary message that I remind myself of daily. I completely agree that when you check out, people know. Your interviews are great because you are so engaged and curious. It’s why we, as the secondary listeners, get so much from each episode. Thanks, JF!

  2. Kelly Niven says:

    Jonathan, this is so important and many people underestimate it. I recently was going through a challenging time and a close friend popped into see me. She ended up staying all night and I experienced what you are talking about. It was very powerful and a major break through for me. All because she took the time to listen! Really, really listen to me. Wonderful experience connecting on that level.

    Thanks for sharing
    Kelly

  3. beth says:

    This is huge! I remember reading your depositions post recently as well and thinking that I need to incorporate that stillness and power of listening into my tutoring business, to really listen to my kids.

    It’s the hardest thing I have ever tried to do.

    I hear the questions or the feelings the students express and instantaneously my ego goes “I can fix that” and I launch into my super perfect fix for their “problem”. I am still working on letting go of the “fix it” mentality because sometimes, oftentimes, people don’t need it fixed as much as they need to speak and be heard.

    When I catch myself now, which is not nearly as often as I’d like, I will apologize, ask them to continue and put my hands over my mouth to keep it shut and to provide a little humor about my bad habit.

  4. What a great post! It’s true, questions come naturally when you’re fully present. And that’s part of the reason why GLP is so amazing every single time. It’s not just the amazing people you interview, it’s the fact that you’re right there, present as can be, which creates a profound atmosphere of sharing. That atmosphere is what makes this project so amazing, and it can be felt from the other side of the screen. Thank you for staying present for everyone watching 🙂

  5. Jonathan,

    People will often ask me how to be a better listener and I will tell them to ask more questions. I like the idea of empathic listening to inspire good questions.

    Also one of my favorite sayings is “are you really listening or just waiting for your turn to talk”

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Yup. Interesting thing. I deliberately go into the conversations with very few, if any, formed questions. Just ideas. That pretty much forces me to listen, because if I don’t, there’s no conversation.

  6. Norm Stoehr says:

    We call it “active noticing” and it includes paying attention to non-verbal behavior.

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Excellent point. A huge amount of communication is non-verbal. I pay close attention to nuance, body language and vocal cadence, rhytm and tone. So often, that’s actually what conveys the most information and what gives me the strongest conversational leads. It takes some effort in the beginning, but after a while it becomes second nature. Kind of the way a poker player reads tells.

  7. Ariana says:

    I love the way you connect the act of listening with the process of inquiring. I’ll definitely be sharing this post with others, great insights!!!

  8. AWESOME JF! Thank you 🙂

    Listening is an art.
    The magic that happens by being fully present can’t happen if we’re pushing our own agenda internally while the other person is sharing. Besides, doing THAT changes the dynamic for the worse every time, it triggers a lot of unintentional crap in the other person and then the energetic feedback is waaaay off.

    Thanks!

  9. Amy says:

    I love this. Thank you for posting it. I completely agree.

    Listening means you could go through the entire conversation, not say a word, and still be content. If you can walk away from it without judgment or rejection (of yourself or the other), you have truly listened.

    Listening is a service, and act of care, an opportunity to practice compassion (with others as well as with ourselves).

    Thank you again.

  10. Srinivas says:

    HEy Jonathan,

    Great way to explain the art of listening. As a person who is naturally very talkative, this is a skill I had to really work at when I started interviewing people. Presence is the one thing I always focus on. I don’t have ANYTHING else open when I’m chatting with people. I think that true listening is about paying attention to the answers you’re given. That’s a big part of why I’ve never scripted most of my questions. The funny thing is that when you learn this you can spot when other people are not fully present. When we start to show up in the world this way magic happens.

  11. Tova says:

    Thanks Jonathan
    This is a great one.
    The listening alone is healing for both parties. The magic is the presence.
    Thanks for a great post.

  12. Angie says:

    Hey Jonathan, I’m naturally a good listener. I thought all people were like this and couldn’t work out why I had such a good memory yet others were so forgetful. I’ve since figured that people just don’t listen. They’re too busy thinking about what they are going to say next. So not only does listening enable deeper questions but it enables a good memory. When you listen to what people are saying you tend to remember. People always comment on my memory, I’ll not see someone for 12 months and remember what was goin on with them. Just because I listen. It’s hard for me to turn off this active listening, it’s not something I do consciously, I’ve just always been interested in others. It can be extremely frustrustating with a world full of talkers because when I do talk I don’t get the same respect back, I don’t get listened to and therefore people can’t remember things that I have told them. Listening (and remembering) shows people you care, shows them you respect them and are interested in them. Being a listener it would be nice to have this reciprocated. Thought it was worth sharing how it feels for someone to be a natural listener in a world full of talkers. 🙂

  13. Don Fulmer says:

    One of the early important lessons I learned in my sales career is that effective salespeople are great listeners. That is because to be an effective sales person you must be able to solve your customer’s problem, which you learn from effective questioning and listening. By careful listening, an effective salesperson may also determine he can’t help resolve this person’s problem so he moves on, saving both of them time.

  14. Joe Baginski says:

    Jonathan
    Great piece that captures the secret as well as the magic that can happen in psychotherapy. As a therapist, I recognized long ago the importance of truly attending to my client. Not just listening to their words, but being with them in the moment, feeling what they feel and letting that insight reside in your own soul. What flows from that is exactly what you describe so eloquently. Nice piece my friend.
    I’m just now putting the finishing touches on my first novel: Hanoi Redemption Full Circle. The story line unfolds through dialogue between characters who are doing exactly what you describe. This level of communication takes them to places in their souls that they never knew existed and allows for the healing of wounds that they have lived with for years. In my case, it was part of the healing process from my Vietnam War PTSD. Thanks

  15. Pooja says:

    I realised the importance of listening with all your intent and heart when I started on my coaching journey a year ago.

    Initially, I was lost in the “next blockbuster question wonderland” as you put it, and I used to keep getting stuck. A few times, I recall, I went quiet — just quiet and fumbled for my next question. My mind went numb! I didn’t know what I was going to do next, because I was not focusing intently.

    Then it happened. I realised I could do this, I could help this person. I didn’t have to bring up a super-good question — just the one they needed at that time. Which means ANY question with pure intent of helping this person at heart.

    Thanks for this post Jonathan!

    Pooja

  16. Kim says:

    Jonathan,

    This really resonates with me. I was interviewed about my artwork once by a skilled interviewer. It was the most amazing experience to be asked questions by a person who was really interested and listened to what I said.

    Thank you for pointing out the importance of listening.

  17. Gillian says:

    I resonate so much with this blog post and your interview style, Jonathan. Thank you!

    I am grateful to work with teenagers – 13 to 15 year olds, as a counsellor and teacher. Listening is my most important and valuable tool, in both roles.

    As you stated, magic truly happens when I’m present, tuned in and actively listening. I discover, Carl Rogers style, that students find their own answers and know what to do…

    Often the most profound conversations and beautifully transformative reflections come out of their mouths in our one-on-one closed door meetings. I often wish, and mention sometimes, that I wish I could have recorded what I heard. I learn so much from listening, especially to these amazing young people.

  18. It’s all about being in the moment. It simply means to focus on whatever you are doing in that moment. So if you are having a conversation you need to focus on that conversation, both verbal and non verbal, to be truly in that moment. It’s like meditation and obviously this means no multitasking. No checking your mail on your phone while having a conversation.
    Even if you don’t have many questions to ask, if you can be in the moment while having a conversation, you’ll always have something valuable to add to the conversation.
    I feel that when talking to your friends and loved ones another important point to remember is that it has to be a two way communication. They are as excited about telling you their stories as you are about yours. So talk in turns.

  19. Questions and listening need each other. Showing genuine interest makes both easy. A good listener is capable of asking good questions in most settings, while a poor listener won’t have the same flair.

    Once you feign interest, the questions aren’t so natural.

  20. Fantastic post – really resonates with me. The combination of an increasingly noisy, constantly connected world and a culture that suggests that ‘communication’ is about being heard has created a perfect storm of non-listening.

    I believe that real listening (‘active’ listening sounds like a technique to me, not a mindset) is transformative and leads to connection, revelation and deep learning.

    Thanks again Jonathan.

  21. Owen Marcus says:

    We have little training in being with people, let alone taking a conversation deeper. I started out very much in my head, trying to look good – you know how well that worked.

    Over the years of running men’s groups I learned to just be with a person. Then I learned how to ask a question that takes the man deeper into himself – to a place he rarely goes.

    When I have the good fortune to make that deep connection it is always because I let the man’s experience impact me. So simple… why didn’t someone teach me this years ago?

  22. Susan Glavin says:

    YES…listening grants speaking!

  23. Aaron Morton says:

    Thanks Jonathan,

    Questions are great and really ignites a conversation past small talk. If anyone has remembered a conversation with someone where you just felt it was only you two in a room, i can guarantee quality questions and listening was involved!

    Aaron

  24. Leah Hynes says:

    Hey Jonathan

    Do you think another reason we find active listening hard is because we’re afraid of the silent pauses?

    How do you get through the discomfort of that possibility? How do you develop a trust in yourself and relax so that the listening becomes second-nature?

    Is it just practice and confidence-building?

    Silent pauses scare me!
    Wonderful post – thank you xo

  25. Jeff Goins says:

    Totally agree. Anyone can wait for their turn to speak. It takes someone of real intelligence (and humility) to listen and respond (if necessary).

  26. Listening, and I mean really listening, is a lost art these days. People (and I don’t exclude myself) tend to focus on themselves. We have this desire to be seen and heard. Sometimes it gets so intense that we forget that other people also have that need to be heard.

  27. Alexis Neely says:

    When I was starting out in my own practice, I studied with a woman who wrote the book “Time to Think” and her premise is that we actually do our best thinking when we have someone truly listening. She teaches people – in my case a group of lawyers – how to listen so as to support out clients in doing their best thinking. The cool thing was that it really gave us a huge leg up on our competition because so few lawyers really do know how to listen so people would leave meetings with us feeling great when they could have the same meeting with another lawyer and not feel good at all. Learning to listen = competitive advantage. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  28. Andrea says:

    I think I’ve read this post 10 times now. So much truth. At the end of my morning meditation, I set an intention for the day. For the last 6 months my intention has been to listen, truly listen, to the people I see throughout the day. It’s a challenge, but I think listening is an act of compassion and love. To care enough about another human being to really hear what they are saying is an incredibly powerful thing. It’s why the GLP interviews are so amazing.

    Thank you, Jonathan.

  29. John M says:

    I completely agree with this, in college I was known as the therapist because I would leave my dorm room door open and people would just come and talk about all of their problems. I didn’t even know half of the people, but I would just sit and listen and hardly said anything and it helped so many people.

  30. This post reminds me of something I need to keep telling myself on a daily basis, once more. And oftentimes, I would end up asking a question I thought needs not the answer. But my ability to listen carefully and attentively to anything by which failing to do so would miss out that great potential of turning a life around. You probably might be wondering what I’m talking about, eh?

  31. […] concise: “Questions Are Easy. Listening Is Hard.” or “Work. Life. Blend.” By Jonathan […]

  32. One of the most challenging things for people who are practicing listening is that many tend to wait for a turn to get a point across. I’ve found that when I’m genuinely listening, I’m looking for ways to be of help which like your article shows, leads to asking better questions.