Ask more questions

There’s also a difference between asking questions and pushing back. Pushing back means you already think you know. Asking questions means you want to know. Ask more questions.

Jason Fried offers this nice comparison between asking questions and pushing back in Give it Five Minutes. The advice to “give it five minutes” comes from a conversation Fried had with Richard Saul Wurman after Fried immediately started critiquing various points in a talk that Wurman gave. As Fried points out, giving it five minutes is about thinking something through rather than immediately disagreeing.

Over the last few years, one of the big efforts I've made is to listen better. I've written about it repeatedly over the last two years, though it feels longer than that since I first wrote about listening up. It's been a big focus of my life recently.

Nevertheless, I constantly catch myself reacting to something before I really give the other person a chance to explain their ideas. Instead of asking “why?” five times or restating what I'm being told to make sure I understand, I put forward an idea of my own or explain why I don't think their idea will work. I've improved, but slowly. I'm still working on listening and asking questions instead of reacting to an idea I don't like or falling in love with my own idea.

Yesterday provided good examples of both my success and failure in this realm.

A conversation at work involved several people with different points of view. Instead of immediately putting forward my opinion, I asked questions about the problem and the various solutions being proposed. The conversation concluded with everyone speaking their mind. Not everyone got their way, but everyone got the chance to explain their ideas.

A second conversation between a colleague and myself didn't go so well. It started off well, but got derailed when I made a point about in idea the other person had. The other person dismissed my idea and proceeded to make the same points they'd previously been making with more force. My response was to make my points with equal force (perhaps even more force, if I'm honest). And with that our conversation became a heated argument

This exchange reveals a weakness of mine: I respond to pushback by pushing back harder. A later conversation with the person I'd been arguing with was helpful. It made me realize that if someone is pushing hard for an idea, that it's because they believe in that idea. It seems obvious, but it's something I often overlook.

I think that the Peel mantra applies here. If I don't understand or don't like someone's idea, I should assume it's my fault. Rather than poking holes in some of their arguments, I need to get a better understanding of two things: what problem are they trying to solve and why do they believe their solution is going to solve it. In short: ask more questions. I have the techniques to do this, but those techniques go out the window when things get heated.

Apparently, Jason Fried has experienced something similar.

Learning to think first rather than react quick is a life long pursuit. It’s tough. I still get hot sometimes when I shouldn’t. But I’m really enjoying all the benefits of getting better.

I whole-heartedly agree. The are definitely benefits to working on this. Professionally, I feel that it equips me to make better and better-informed decisions. Both professionally and personally, it has improved many of my relationships. Listening up is worth it, but it's not easy.