Speaking In Order To Listen

Our executive coach Shoeleh Forghani gave a talk at one of our functions a few years ago on the topic of Conversations. Since that function we’ve worked with Shoeleh to bring more curiosity into the way we communicate with each other and our clients. This is one practical exercise we’ve found helpful to bring more curiosity into our conversations. The idea is simple, there are only three “golden rules” to follow:

  1. Only ask questions: keep them short and simple

  2. Link each question with something the other person has said

  3. Try to withhold advice, suggestions or interpretations as much as possible

The exercise is derived from the work of four Italian psychiatrists known as the Milan Team. Around 40 years ago they examined their own interventions in clinical conversations with patients and their families to find out what seemed to be effective. They derived three principles that they called ‘hypothesising’, ‘circularity’ and ‘neutrality’. The concepts are each quite simple.

  1. Hypothesising describes the ability to frame ideas in your own mind in order to generate good hypothesis-testing questions, but not to pursue them if they prove unfruitful or seem to have no traction with the other person.

  2. Circularity depends on allowing your own speech to be guided by the other person’s narrative and not vice versa.

  3. Neutrality is close to what is sometimes called equipoise or equanimity - the capacity not to impose your own views or feelings on someone else unless you think your professional role absolutely requires this.

  4. One member of the team later argued that all of their effective conversations were in fact based on one quality only: curiosity.

These golden rules share much common ground with other approaches including coaching and counselling - in a sense they are a distillation of their core tenets. Many individuals who practice this approach find their work becomes faster and less stressful over time. Instead of opening up a “Pandora’s Box” by their questioning, as many first fear, they realise they are now more attuned to what others are saying and hence get the gist more quickly. They are also better at facilitating change in others without feeling the need to nudge or prod them. Perhaps the most beneficial outcome of practicing these golden rules is the discovery of how our conversational habits are interfering with effective dialogue.

An obvious objection to this curiosity-first approach is that when people come to us with problems they are implicitly asking for information, advice, and solutions. This may be true, but misses the point of the approach. For example people may come to us for other purposes, or trying to work out their best options for themselves (without wanting someone else’s views). Even when they ask for guidance directly, they may still find it more helpful if you ask questions first in order to pitch this appropriately. The rule to withhold advice, suggestions, and interpretations is not an absolute ban but is simply a caution not to impose these without considering whether they are wanted or needed, or might at least be delayed until later. Applied properly the rules are not meant to lead to an inquisition or to be used inflexibly on all occasions. They are intended first as a learning exercise, and then to be available as a default position whenever they might be helpful.

Try them out, and you may be surprised how often curiosity alone achieves what all our other tendencies like giving advice or reassurance cannot.