What happens when someone hasn’t developed good listening skills? Here are some typical conversations that create stress at work and home:

Example 1: Manuel sits down with Chris, one of his direct reports, to describe a new assignment. As he explains, the nature of the job requires that Chris weighs the quality of the project against the ultimate goal of meeting costs and timelines. When he finishes the explanation, he asks Chris if he is prepared to take on the assignment.

  • Chris:  Sure, I’m ready. I just don’t understand exactly what you are asking me to do.
  • Manuel: What part of it don’t you understand?
  • Chris:  Well, actually, I don’t understand what you are saying about costs, time, and budget. Would you please explain it again?
  • Manuel:  [Sigh!]

Example 2: Daud and Malika have been discussing a two-day car trip they are planning to visit Daud’s relatives. Malika has explained why she is looking forward to visiting a historical site that is about half way to their final destination. Daud sits and listens, puzzled and not a little annoyed. To him, going out of the way to visit the site would put them in town very late, but he does want Malika to enjoy the trip as well.

  • Daud: But why is this so important to you to go there before we see the family? Why can’t we see it on our way home?
  • Malika:  Because this is a dream of mine – to see it. I have explained to you what it meant to me.
  • Daud: I don’t get it. Try again. [Sigh!]

In both conversations, someone ends up sighing in frustration and confusion. What could the listeners do instead to find out the information they were seeking?

The secret of going into inquiry

The skill they each could use here is inquiry –active investigation of the other person’s thought processes from a position of curiosity. Simply asking someone to explain the same thing over and over again is unlikely to yield useful information.

Inquiry is one of the four building blocks for effective relationships that we describe in Reframing Change. The other three are powerful listening, openness, and feedback.

Inquiry is a powerful tool. It is also harder to learn than you might think. As a skill, it appears deceptively simple: when you are unclear about what someone is saying, you ask questions to discern their underlying meaning, preferences, and fears. The problem is, sometimes people think they have been crystal clear in their explanations to you when in fact they have not.

The secret, then, to go into inquiry by asking for detail and contrast so that the explanation can be placed in some kind of context.

Asking someone to explain again and again is about as useful as giving someone directions by telling them to go over the hill and around the corner to get where they are going. Directions work if you give people detail and guideposts to contrast where they are with what they should look for:

At the top of the hill you will see a railroad crossing. After you get there, take your first right. At the corner is Elmo’s Old Fashioned Townhouse Store. Then drive about half a mile and look to the right and you will be there.

Similarly, when someone is saying something that you don’t understand, you go into inquiry by asking the person to give you contrast and detail so that you may have points of comparison. It’s important that your tone of voice conveys genuine curiosity.

Here are examples:

  • Probing—asking others to explain their thinking or to provide examples

Chris: When you mentioned “weighing the quality against the costs and the timelines,” could you explain this part further? For example, could you describe a situation in which someone did or did not properly weigh the quality against the costs and timeline?

Daud: The part I’m puzzled about is why arriving late doesn’t seem to be that big a deal to you. Would you please explain your thinking about this?

  • Asking about shades of difference or comparisons

Chris: When we worked on the Wiseguy account, you told me that high quality was the prime consideration. Now you seem to be saying that more emphasis should be placed on costs and timelines. Would you please explain how this situation is different from the Wiseguy account?

Daud: I’m not clear as to what are the advantages to visiting the site on the way there rather than on the way back. As you compared the two options, what were the factors you considered?

  • Testing our assumptions about others’ views, behavior, or motives

Chris: It seems to me that your basic concern is meeting the client’s timeline and that as long as the work is satisfactory, we won’t worry about whether it’s super high quality. Is this what you mean?

Daud: I’m wondering if you are afraid that if we don’t visit the site on the way there, something will happen so we won’t have time to stop there on our way back home. Is this what’s underneath what you are saying?

Why don’t people go into inquiry more?

There are several reasons people don’t go into inquiry more often:

  • They think the onus is on the other person to be clear. They fail to recognize their power as a listener to elicit the information they are seeking.
  • They think it’s too much work to try to figure out the right questions to ask. They don’t realize that it’s actually more work to keep asking someone to explain over and over again.
  • Going into inquiry suggests vulnerability. Asking someone about their underlying meanings and assumptions can expose your own lack of knowledge.

The name of the game is improving the dynamics of your interpersonal relationships. It’s very difficult to have an effective relationship in which the other person carries all the vulnerability. Inquiry shows your active engagement and caring.

Here’s another way of thinking about it. As a technical communications expert once explained to me: A big receiver and a small transmitter work much better than a big transmitter and a small receiver.


  1. Have you gone into inquiry in a challenging conversation and it worked out beautifully?
  2. Have you tried it and it just bombed?
  3. What happened in either case?

Reference: Reframing Change, Chapter 4


Filed under: building effective relationshipstesting assumptionsworkplace dynamics

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