tell me more

So maybe you’re feeling challenged lately to be a better listener — shining the spotlight a bit more on others and a bit less on yourself.  Great!  But what do you do when other people just aren’t the talkative type?

:: cue the crickets ::

Certainly that is the right time to fill the empty space with your own words, right?  You can.  Or, you could try out some spiffy, new communication skills that might just come in handy.

ASKING QUESTIONS:

Knowing how to ask the right kind of questions is one of the most important interpersonal skills you can have.  Here are a couple of guidelines for asking great questions:

1.  Ask open questions as opposed to closed questions.

A closed question is one that has a limited set of possible responses. A few examples of closed questions:

“What’s your name?”

“Have you eaten here before?”

“How’s your meal?”

The first of these has essentially one answer with two varieties (the person’s first name, or first and last).  The second invites essentially two possible answers (yes or no).  And the last also has a limited set of expected replies (good, not good and so-so).

“How are you doing today?” may also wind up being a closed question, since typical acceptable answers basically hail from the same set as the previous question.

Closed questioning is fine with communication partners who are inclined to share more information on their own.  But with the reticent type, questions like these leave you back in silence after a word or two.

An open question is phrased to naturally require more from the response:

“What are your favorite things about summer?”

“How did you become interested in photography / motocross / design?”

“What’s your week ahead looking like?”

The answers to these questions could be nearly anything.  It’s possible that any question can be greeted with “I don’t know” or “same old same old”; but we’ll address handling this type of response a little later.

By the way, for communication purposes, a question need not end in a question mark, but can also be a polite request for information: “So, tell me more about your job / semester / family.”

One of my favorite open questions of this type is “Tell me three things you like about yourself.”  I usually follow this with, “… and then I’ll tell you three things I like about you.  But you have to tell me yours first.”

2.  Use extension questions.

Where it fits, the addition of  “…and why” can help turn a closed question into an open one, or extend an open question even further.  For example, “What’s your favorite movie?” requires only a short answer, while “What’s your favorite movie, and why?” invites a bit more insight:

“What was your favorite class this semester, and why did you like it so much?”

“If you could go anywhere in the world right now, all expenses paid, where would you go, and why?”

Other extension questions are basically re-phrasings of “Tell me more”:

“I heard you won an award this week.  What’s that all about?

“I saw a dent on your car.  How’d that happen?

“So, you’ve got a new job.  How’s that going?

OBSERVING OUT LOUD:

A good deal of being an effective communicator is learning to be in the moment rather than letting your thoughts drift, and then truly focusing on the other person rather than on yourself.  If you are worried about how your hair looks, or silently pondering the Discovery show you saw about how ostrich kicks can be deadly, you are not likely to connect deeply in current conversation.

A great strategy for keeping yourself in the moment, and for encouraging more input from your communication partner, is to actively observe and comment out loud on what you are noticing about them.

Recently, I was giving a voice lesson to a teen boy.  I opened the lesson by previewing what we would be working on that day.  Meanwhile, I jotted notes for him in his voice journal, which was on the piano in front of us.  He seemed very focus on me indeed, as I spoke and wrote.  When I finished my explanation, I turned to him.  “OK, so do you understand our goals for today?”

He paused, and then replied with wide-eyed sincerity, “You have really clean ears!”

Now, while he was being observant, I’m not sure this is quite where we want to go with things.  Aside from being somewhat awkward, albeit in an endearing fashion, this observation didn’t lead anywhere.  The best I could have said is, “Er … thanks.” (In fact, I burst out laughing, as did he, and for quite some time.)

Instead, think of it this way.  A good observation to share  is one to which you could reasonably append “Tell me more.”

Let’s put my young friend’s comment about the fastidiousness of my ear hygiene to the test:

“You have really clean ears!  Tell me more.”

Doesn’t quite work, does it.

But, consider something more like this:

“That’s a pretty nasty black eye.”

“You’re unusually quiet tonight.”

“You aren’t wearing your glasses.”

“You made an interesting face when I mentioned your mom.”

“You seem like you’re in a really good space today.”

In each case here, you could easily add “Tell me more.”  And, in fact, that is exactly what these observations encourage the other person to do.  (Again, you may be met with “yup” or “nope” or “I guess so.”  More on such short replies later.)

REFLECTING:

Chad was commenting to me a few days ago that, when I spoke out at Penn State last fall, he was surprised at how many in attendance had never heard of reflection as a communication tool.  Reflecting is essentially saying back all or part of what someone else has just said to you.  Often, people hear their own words differently when spoken back to them by someone else. Reflection also keys in on personal word choice that may have slipped out, but which holds deeper meaning.

A few examples (reflections bolded):

A: How’s your day going?

B: All right, I guess.

A: You guess?

*****

A: How’s your day going?

B: All right, I guess.

A: Just all right?

*****

A: So how did that conversation with your mom go?

B: *uggh* The worst!

A: Really?  The worst?

*****

A: Tell me about the play you’re in.

B: I don’t know.  No one listens to the director.

A: No one?

Here again with reflection, you see that an implied “Tell me more” could follow.

If you aren’t careful, reflection can sound stilted or forced:

B: I just don’t know what to do anymore.

A: You don’t know what to do anymore?

This doesn’t seem as helpful in getting us to new ground.  Maybe this is a place for a shorter reflection paired with an observation or question:

B: I just don’t know what to do anymore.

A: You said, ‘anymore.’  That sounds like you used to feel like you knew what to do.  [observation]

*****

B: I just don’t know what to do anymore.

A: What to do?  Why do you feel you have to do something about the situation? 

If done in a natural manner, reflection is a powerful means of helping to keep conversation focused on the speaker, and flowing freely. And as illustrated above, all three of these  — questioning, observing out loud, and reflecting — work naturally together.

EMBRACING SILENCE:

So what about those times when, despite your best efforts, one-word answers still prevail?

Someone once said that silence is golden.  We tend to be afraid of silence, but it really isn’t so bad.  Often, silence is even necessary for people to have time to consider what’s been talked about, or to formulate an answer.  I couldn’t count the times over a dinner that I asked a question or made an observation that initially went unanswered.  But, after a little while of just eating, listening to the background music, or observing what was going on around us in the restaurant — and with a few smiles from me in between — a reply did come.  And a well-thought-out one, at that.  It just took some time.

I’m a big fan of permitting, as well.  That is, verbally allowing something that might otherwise become awkward:

“You know, we don’t always have to be talking.  I’m happy just to be here with you.”

“You don’t seem to be in the talkative mood right now, and that’s perfectly OK.  Do you want to just turn on some music for a while?”

If you hold the place in someone’s life, nonverbal communication can bridge silences, as well.  I mentioned smiling.  You’d be surprised how far a smile really goes toward connecting without words.  A shoulder squeeze.  A friendly side-bump.  A little “finger-puppet” wave.  They all say, “I’m here.  I know you’re here. And I’m glad.”

Adding new communication skills to your repertoire can be daunting at first.  It takes practice.  And that means trial and error.  But I can think of few things more worthwhile or rewarding than developing the ability to connect with others on a deeper level.

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About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

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