On Tuesday night I went to a short, two hour course on Active Listening Skills, at Willesden Library Lab. Admittedly I went along somehow having led myself to believe that it was a course about assertiveness – it wasn’t.
Instead, ‘Active Listening’ (though it does help with assertiveness and managing relationships) is actually a way of retraining yourself when it comes to interacting with people, so that you get the most information or the deepest responses from people and (in the words of our course leader) find out “all their secrets”… Sceptical? I was.
But it’s actually been really useful for helping me think about (for example) interview technique, as well as managing ‘conflict situations’ and difficult conversations with people. One of the main (and very interesting techniques) we covered was how to have a conversation with someone without ever asking any questions – which means that you end up hearing what they want to tell you, rather than directing them towards your personal agenda. Questions inevitably lead the person you’re talking to, because they discover what it is you want to know, rather than what they want to tell you. The example the course leader (who was himself a hostage negotiator for most of his working life!) gave seemed very simplistic:
A: I’m going on holiday next week.
B: Right – where are you going?
which just tells you about the holiday. As opposed to -
A: I’m going on holiday next week.
B: On holiday…
A: Yes, I’ve been really stressed…
B: Oh, right -
A: Yes, it’s been really tough recently
B: I see, so…
A: My wife just left me…
(I mean, obviously, I exaggerate, but by not asking questions you make the person you’re talking to ‘give away’ more than they would if you asked questions.)
I was sceptical, but then we tried it out, and I ended up learning that the person next to me is applying for various law jobs, is quite competitive, worried about their sister, has a supportive boyfriend and a few close friends and has ambitions to go into the UN. I didn’t ask a single question! Likewise, I gave a lot more away through the non-questioning technique than I’d ever have planned to tell a perfect stranger!
And the point about all of that is that by not asking questions, you can learn something of other people’s values and beliefs, which (although the course leader was using examples of hostage situations, can also be applied to every day life, because you can do this to get people to do what you want) allows you to persuade (or manipulate people…) into helping you get to where you want to be by using their beliefs and
values against them, as it were.
Bit creepy, no doubt, but on a general level really interesting!
For example (triggers of domestic violence, by the way) he described one hostage situation where there was a man threatening to kill his wife and the negotiation was happening through a locked door. Our negotiating chappy was talking to him and he, hostage-taker, was saying:
“I go out to work all day, I work hard, I do my best by this family, and I come home and she’s having an affair…!”
Which tells you yes, that he’s jealous, yes, that he’s clearly dangerously abusive, but also that his main priorities are family-related. He’s a ‘family man’, even if he’s taken it too far. So there’s no point trying to tell him to calm down, and that what he’s doing is wrong, because he knows that. The course leader said that instead, a better tactic was to respond to the values this man already lives by:
“yes, you do your best by this family – you’re a family guy – let me talk to the real you; this isn’t you,
is it? I want to talk to the man who loves his home and family, not the man who’s done this…” and so on, and by emphasising his values (which he’s given away..!) you have a more powerful negotiating tool.
Something else useful that was said was that you should always go to someone’s level. I.e. if someone’s angry, don’t tell them to calm down, because if they’re angry it’s because something matters to them.
So you respond on that level (not by shouting – you have to remain in control, but mirror the level at which they’re reacting) “I know you’re angry, I can see this is important to you, but let’s talk about
this situation, shall we?” implies that they’ve got the power, but because you’ve responded to the need in them for it to be recognised, you’re controlling their energy levels…
And his final bit of magic, which is something my Mum actually taught me ages ago, is distancing problems. So you don’t go up to someone and say “We need to sort this problem out”, you say “We need to sort that problem out”. It’s further away from you. Likewise, “Why did you do that, you stupid boy” is unhelpful – instead you say “Why did you do that stupid thing? You’re not stupid, so why did you do that?”
So the other person isn’t ‘a’ naughty/stupid/problematic person, it’s just that there are naughty/stupid/problematic things occurring around them that need to be sorted out…!
And another thought – see, I told you I found it really useful! – was that to get more information out of someone, there are three questions you can ask:
- “why is that important to you?”
- “Why does that matter to you?”
- “Why does that mean so much to you?”
which are all three ways of asking the same thing, but if you space out the questions, and build on key things someone has said, you develop from what they’re saying and get right to the heart of things. I.e.
A: What are the most important qualities you look for in a friend?
Why is trust so important to you?
B: [cue blather... blah blah, because I can confide in them...]
A:Why does being able to confide in someone mean so much to you?
… because you can have someone’s support…
why does that matter?
B: because when I was three years old….
See?! Magic. Needs practice, and it makes you really pay attention to what the other person is saying, because you have to pick up on what they’re giving you. Saying things like “It seems to me that [x] really
makes you angry” “Yes, it does because…” gives you more of a lead in than “why are you so angry about this stupid thing?” which suggests more of a judgement and puts people’s backs up…
I’ll stop waffling now, but as you can see, I found it really exciting and interesting, and it’s given me a variety of tools I can use and apply to get to the heart of people (useful in interviews and at work, because that helps you build deeper relationships!) which can only be a good thing, right?!