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  • Kathy O'Brien

The Curious Case of the Question



Have you ever questioned your questioning?



If a fly on the wall were to observe you in conversation, what would that fly say about the way you engage, your style or your tone? What about your approach to asking questions?


Here’s what most people do:

  • Frame questions in a way that reconfirms their own views (So you would agree that capitalism has failed?)

  • Use questions to discredit the other person’s statements, or show their own thinking to be superior (Are you really suggesting we let children decide for themselves?)

  • Disguise statements as questions to shift the discussion to their own agenda (Can’t you see that intellectual property law is the problem?)


Or, in many conversations, no questions are asked. None at all! Everyone just makes statement upon statement. 


Could this be you? Are you so busy stating what you think, you forget to ask questions of the other person?


If your answer could be yes, now’s a great time to step back and ask yourself whether making statements is a great way to have an engaging conversation.


Here are some moments you might have experienced:

  • You’re so keen to get your point across, you spend all the time thinking of what you will say next – and not really listening to the other person.

  • You know you have to say something intelligent, so instead of listening, you scan your mind for the best thing you can say when your turn comes up.

  • You hear the flaw in the other person’s argument, and ready yourself to jump in and explain why this is wrong.


The problem with all these scenarios is this: We are so busy focusing on what we will say, we forget to listen.


And when we forget to listen, we make a lot of other mistakes.


We miss important details.


We misunderstand.


We don’t observe the unspoken information that can be so important to understanding the other person – like her tone of voice, his body language, or the way the statement is framed.

We speak, and we’re not really responding to the other person’s statement. In truth, we didn’t really hear it because we were busy thinking of what to say.


Here is a simple, absolutely foolproof approach that will instantly turn you into a better listener – and, thus, make others enjoy talking with you:


Approach every conversation with total curiosity.


As the other person speaks, be curious. Curious about what he is describing. Curious about why she thinks what she thinks. Curious about the background to this decision. Curious about the reasons for the new approach. Curious about what this all means.


That curiosity will deliver so many benefits, it’s impossible to list them all. Here are just a few:

  • You will pick up both facts and nuances: the tension in her voice, his underlying values.

  • Receiving this higher-level information will kick off many thought processes for you. You’ll start to analyse and wonder about what you’re hearing.

  • You will naturally become more curious.



And then, an amazing thing will happen.  

  • You will ask the Curious Question.

  • You will frame your question in a respectful, open, totally curious manner.  

  • There won’t be in-built conclusions or hidden opinions. There will just be open curiosity.

  • Your tone will thus be non-judgmental.

  • Your body language will be relaxed, open and receptive.

  • You’ll make the speaker want to share more.

  • And so, the speaker will share more. And again, you will listen with curiosity.


Easy, you say – so long as it’s not an issue you care about.  Untrue!


When the stakes are high, this approach works particularly well. When the client is telling you she doesn’t like your proposal, the best thing you can do is ask Curious Questions. When the negotiation partner is unwilling to budge, your greatest strength will come from Curious Questions that seek to understand why.  


The Curious Question…

  • Strips out your opinions

  • Focuses on the other person’s statements

  • Shows interest

  • Opens up the conversation so you learn more from the other person

  • Gives you deeper insights

The insights you gain from Curious Questions give you a more accurate understanding of the other person’s views. Use these insights, and you’ll be more effective…

  • As a business partner, you’ll show you really understand her challenges and are thinking about how to help her.

  • As a negotiator, you’ll frame your statements around his stated values and priorities. Of course the other party will listen more when it relates so closely to his views.

  • As a friend, you’ll show you really care.

  • As a colleague, you’ll be appreciated for your other-attentiveness.


If you remain super-conscious of what you’re doing, you will quiet the ‘hey, I know better’ voice inside your head.  You’ll say to that little voice: ‘later’.

And you’ll focus back on what you’re hearing…because you’re curious.  

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