I can’t hear you…

January 5, 2009

A monk asked Shigui, “What is the first principle?”

Shigui said, “What you just asked is the second principle.”

 — from Zen’s Chinese Heritage

A few weeks ago, I was trying to pass along some information to a friend that I hoped would help resolve a conflict with which she was struggling. She was angry and, no matter what data I provided, I could tell it wasn’t getting through. Every point I tried to make, my friend got more defensive. She wanted out of the conversation and I was ready to give up.

There were clear signs that I needed change my approach. A “fight” (anger/attack) – “flight” (let me out of this conversation) reaction was a blaring indication that she was scared. Fear sits right underneath anger and avoidance.

When we are afraid, we are focused more on surviving than gathering new information. When the adrenaline kicks in, our brain screams, “Get yourself out” and is not much interested in sticking around to learn. So in this state, we don’t hear so well.

Trying to convince another is highly ineffective when she is worried about losing something dear to her. I know this, yet had forgotten as I laid out my well-developed argument…ah yes, teaching what I continue to integrate! After a few tries, I remembered an important cross-cultural rule of thumb, “Ask Questions.”

Asking open-ended questions calms and opens thinking. From a brain perspective, when I need to consider and answer a question, I move from my survival-focused brain stem up into more contemplative neocortex. In that portion of our heads, we can consider past, present and future, be creative, and are more willing to learn.

Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no.” The better the question, the more it slows the listener to consider it. That might be confusing, but our best inquiries stop others in their tracks.

Favorite questions include:

  • What would you have liked to have been different?
  • What could I do differently?
  • When you have been in your opponent’s situation, what would you have appreciated or needed?
  • Best of all possible worlds, what would you like to happen in the future?
  • What should our next steps?
  • How could I best support you? 

Our conversation shifted when I remembered to ask a question, in my case, the third above. Instead of striving to present positions, I became privy to my friend’s wisdom on practical ways to support another through tough times. We both listened better while she considered her next steps and I provided the information I thought might help. Our conversation, and later her conflict, were transformed.

Ask questions…A remembered mantra in my litany.

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

Related Posts