Canadian Consulting Engineer

Listen Up

January 1, 2007
By Hank Bulmash, MBA, CA

Amonth ago one of my oldest friends mentioned that he was planning to buy a new digital camera. Perfect. Because after six months of painstaking research, I had just bought one. Over a long cup of cof...

Amonth ago one of my oldest friends mentioned that he was planning to buy a new digital camera. Perfect. Because after six months of painstaking research, I had just bought one. Over a long cup of coffee, I told him everything I learned. Then (amazingly) he bought a different brand — an inferior one.

Another case: my brother Josh’s teenage daughter wanted to get downtown for a concert, but she didn’t know the way. Josh carefully explained the route to her. Suspecting she wasn’t listening, he kindly pointed that out (Janet! Pay attention!) and repeated all the directions. Still, that night she somehow lost her way.

Is something strange going on here? Not really. We human beings simply don’t respond well to being told what to do. We also don’t like to be made to feel inadequate or pressured to agree. Neurological research indicates that all those experiences trigger responses in the amygdala, the ancient reptilian area of our brains. When someone makes us feel foolish or inadequate or manipulated, neurons in the amygdala fire and we get annoyed, or angry or threatened.

Something similar happens if you recommend your services too soon or too strongly proffer your advice. The prospect feels pressured and he or she pulls back. It doesn’t matter how good the advice is, if the client isn’t receptive he won’t hear it.

On the other hand, no other species enjoys the pleasure of discovery as much as we humans do. Science has shown that when we learn in a certain way, our brains send out chemical messages that actually make us happy. That’s why we feel so pleased when we have an Ah Ha! moment, a genuine insight. Coaches and psychologists learn to ask probing questions in order to help us develop insight, and we like that. On the other hand, many sales approaches that are based on questions fail because the questions are manipulative and the prospect ends up feeling pushed around. (A car salesman once completely repelled me by asking, “What can I do right now that will make you give me the order today?” There was nothing he could do to get me to rush my decision. All his question accomplished was to get me to leave.)

If you’ve lost jobs you expected to obtain — and who hasn’t? — it may be because you’re being too directive. People like to learn, and especially to figure things out. We don’t like to be led like horses to water. On the other hand, most of us love to lead — and that can turn people off. We want to impart wisdom, but our listeners don’t hear it that way. They just feel bullied.

So … what to do? We want to proceed, but we don’t want to create a negative reaction. Which brings me to the concept of neutral questions. The benefit of neutral questions is that you can use them to help people discover patterns without arousing resistance. And discovering a pattern is a major route to discovery. This is the basis of the Socratic method. Socrates lived about 450 years before Christ, which is a reminder of how old the approach is. You might remember that Socrates went around Athens challenging the received wisdom of the day by asking simple but very well organized questions. He brought a great deal of insight to the people he spoke with, which is why he remains famous today.

One of the benefits you can bring to your clients is the ability to generate insights. Asking them a simple question like, “How are things going?” or the more probing, “How did this month compare with the same month last year?” “Why do you think that is?” or “What else?” can produce a lot of information. Going further with questions like, “What do you think about that?” “What have you already tried?” “How did that work out?”or “Why do you think you didn’t get the results you hoped for?” can help your clients to review what they’ve already tried and open up to you about their current ideas.

Asking, “How are you planning to move forward?” can give the client the opportunity to even help develop solutions to problems. Probing further with “How do you think that will go?” may allow him to explore potential shortcomings in his plans. Only after laying this foundation does it make sense to put forward your own expertise. Before offering your thoughts, it makes sense to ask permission. You could ask, “Would you like an idea?” Then when you speak you’re responding to an invitation to share your opinion.

This all may seem like a lot of trouble, but it’s effective. Listening before talking isn’t very natural to most of us, and it is something that people with technical backgrounds are particularly weak in. But it’s a wonderful skill to develop. For example, studies have shown that medical patients are pretty good at explaining their symptoms. They’ve usually thought about what they’re going to say and planned it out. Some bring notes as an aid. As long as the doctor remains quiet, the patient will usually reveal all his concerns in less than two minutes. But that’s not what happens in most cases. On average a doctor interrupts with a question after only 18 seconds. The discussion is diverted, and it’s hard for the patient to cover everything he wants to. Also when a doctor asks a question that the patient isn’t prepared for, the patient often feels obliged to give a quick (and premature) answer. In fact sometimes the question will be entirely misunderstood. Additional probing would lead to additional information in many cases, but few doctors probe further. They usually accept the first response the patient makes, add it to the chart, and the subject is forever closed.

Much of our most productive mental work evolves out of conversation, but we’re not taught to expect that. Our schooling can lead us to believe that the most important mental work we do is solitary. After all plagiarism and cheating (the major academic crimes) teach students that real work is done alone — using other people’s ideas (even in teams) is less valid than what we produce on our own. In our society, you’re not expected to use teamwork to figure out that 3 x 3 = 9. You just have to learn the multiplication table. In many ways this makes terrific sense. We have to learn what we have to learn. But schoolwork is generally devoted to solving problems created to demonstrate specific principles. Life isn’t like that. In fact as Socrates showed, one of the few ways to examine something carefully is to talk about it. That’s why neutral questioning and real conversations are so important.

Providing customers with the opportunity to reason and reflect isn’t a one-way street, of course. When we support our clients in developing their insights, they end up feeling good about themselves — and about us. And that good feeling can result in work. So hold off on the wisdom. Go slow and let your clients talk to you.

Hank Bulmash, MBA, CA is a principal of Bulmash Cullemore, chartered accountants of Toronto. E-mail


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