“We live in the world our questions create.”  

~~   David Cooperrider

Remember Sam, the business owner who couldn’t understand why his people didn’t simply ‘just listen” to him?

His first step to remedy that situation was to learn to pause.

His second step involved gaining perspective from those who worked for him. His team had contributions to make to both Sam and the business, but without gaining their perspective such contributions would be lost. And, the collective mood grumpy.


Listening Through Distinctions

We listen through our own distinctions (think camera filter here) when we try to make sense of the world. Distinctions in hand, the best actions become clear. In fact, they seem like common sense to us.

Of course, Sam was no different than the rest of us. Yet his current set of distinctions, his common sense, wasn’t serving him at all.

Perspective comes about through listening to other’s distinctions and observing their subsequent actions.

For example, a doctor and an accountant will listen very differently to someone’s story about feeling unwell.

“I have this twisting pain in my gut that kind of burns. Then I become nauseous.”

The doctor may listen, “irritable bowel syndrome that requires a specific medication and shifting diet,” or “could be a hernia, let’s check it out.”

She listens through distinctions she’s learned from her medical training about what’s possibly occurring within the body.

The accountant, on the other hand, has an entirely different set of distinctions, one’s less refined in this domain.  His listening in turn results in “It’s tax season. It’s heartburn. Take some Tums.”


Distinctions You Can Use

In today’s workplace listening often occurs through the distinctive lenses of certainty and pretense.

We’re certain we know what the other person is going to say, certain he or she is a genius, an ass or simply boring, certain that we like or dislike what someone is saying.  Sam certainly knew his team should be listening to him. He was certain he had all the answers and details about running his business.

Pretense, is of course, about pretending. It’s when we pretend that we’re not actually having one of the above internal conversations.

Or, we simply smile, pretending to agree or not care, ending the conversation because we don’t want to contradict or annoy a colleague.  Or, we have a boss like Sam, who typically barks directives instead of listening; we pretend we respect him so the barking will stop.

Neither certainty nor pretense are useful to perspective.

Discovery is the practice of listening for what’s possible in a conversation.

Discovery involves a willingness to be curious, to explore, to literally discover what the other person brings to the table—their perspective.

Discovery opens new worlds.  Possibilities open up that reveal other’s ideas, concerns, and skills that would never be clear through the lens of certainty or pretense.

In the spirit of discovery perspective comes about through learning to ask great questions. Then listening.

Sam’s prevailing distinctions of funneling information(micromanaging), being the ‘expert’ with all the ‘right answers,’ and directing action with minimal conversation were no longer effective distinctions (despite having been useful in wartime).

Previously I’d asked Sam to pause to listen to what his team members were saying, and then to clarify by asking questions.

He did it. He paused. He asked questions.  Sam gained perspective by learning to ask really great questions.

For example, at one meeting, surprising everyone, he turned to his Operations Director, Joe, and simply asked, ‘Can you tell me your opinion about how the process on the floor is working?’

That simple question opened up a robust conversation that lead to improving their process, cutting their delivery time, and ultimately making their customer happy.  By engaging his team around their experience and perspective, a mood of openness was created, and trust within the business began to grow.

Consider using these powerful questions to tap into distinctions, and improve your perspective:

  • “What do you think?” (general interpretation)
  • “What leads you to think what you think?” (facts and reasoning)
  • “What would you like to accomplish?” (goal)
  • “What is the most important thing to you?” (concern)
  • “What do you suggest we do?” (proposal for concrete actions)