Listen to the QUESTION

Listen to the QUESTION

People don’t listen to questions being put to them. Example:

Q: “Are you sure about that?”

A: “I read it in the Good Book.” That’s no answer to the question.

We all know that engagement involves exchanges of intelligent questions and answers. Today’s questions are not always the most thoughtful, but they are increasingly being asked. However, if you watch someone being questioned you will usually see that as soon as the questioner starts to speak, the respondent begins thinking of the reply. Not only is it natural to do so, it is taught as the right way to develop an Oscar Wilde razor-sharp wit, often mistakenly thought to be analogous to intelligence. 

Roving eyes, shifting positions, scribbling, are give-aways to distraction from what is being said. Doctors find this with patients and, not infrequently, patients, with doctors. Bosses see it in subordinates and the reverse is unhappily true, too. Politicians ask self-answering questions these days, though the more thoughtful realise that the day of the omnipotent is drawing to a close. Salesmen still sell when they should be persuading to buy. Perhaps saddest of all are those who drone on about sin in order to promote good behaviour.

What are useful questions and what, worthy answers?

It depends on your purpose. At TMI we often need to know personal information about clients. Some will be reluctant to give it. Not everyone wants to share their finances or failures. But trying to help resolve a problem without vital data is like tampering with a nuclear weapon before reading the instructions. What questions elicit the correct answers least painfully? Perhaps unexpectedly, very straightforward ones. However, if you need to know about someone’s health, you must be more tactful, unless you are a doctor. People feel personally responsible for their health in a way that they don’t about their wealth. Strange, isn’t it?

Dr Ee Peng Liang, head of the Social Services in Singapore in the 1980s began most conversations with “How can I help?” It’s a good way to connect with people, although even with an innocent question like this there are those today whose sensitivities will make them see it as offensive. Rather like those taxi-drivers who regard a tip as an outrage of corruption. Some social chit-chat is a good way into a conversation largely of questions. An appeal to the knowledge and skills of the person being asked almost always elicits a response. Subjects on which you agree will get a flow of discussion moving. Those on which you don’t will add spice.

Listening to the question involves you asking yourself some questions, too.

Is the question bona fide? Does the asker have a different agenda from me? If so, what is it? What does s/he want from me? Are there particular sensitivities I must look out for? What result do I want from whatever answer I give? Learning, like everything else in life, is no straight road. It is a meandering river and the vessel must go where the stream goes. Getting straight to the point requires a confident respondent. People have less confidence than they did.

Surely listening properly to the question, assessing the asker’s intentions and conjuring up the answer are a lot of things to do when someone is waiting for a bright and scintillating reply? Indeed. That is why you also have to learn to measure risk about what you say – and think ahead. You should have anticipated most of the questions you will get.

In spite of all the hazards connected with competent communication, the challenge of achievement is terrific. The Chairman of Benson’s, the agency I worked for in the 1960s, Philip Stobo, had it right when he described a good lunch or dinner with clients as involving “good talk”. All our conversations should aspire to be that.

That can only happen if we listen to the question. 

It’s the GPS of learning.

Good afternoon

John Bittleston

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28 October 2023