How to listen to what people are not saying-and get them to talk a bit more freely. 5 tips

In many cultures which favour discretion and ambiguity to save face and maintain harmony, it is often important to hear what people are not telling you explicitly, and get them to open up nevertheless.

Here are 5 tips on how to do this.

1) Listen closely for key words like “may” or “could”. If Jules asks Som if the marketing plan is good and Som says, “it could succeed”, Som has severe reservations. If Fred asks Miyazaki if the client is excited about the feature and Miyazaki says that the feature “may” interest the client, Fred should best ask Miyazaki, “what else needs to be done to improve our chances”.

2) When you encounter an evasive answer, or when you are getting an answer that has nothing to do with the question you have asked, that is the answer. There is no need to push anymore.

3) Learn about local body language. There are smiling “no”s in Thailand, “yes”s which are “no”s in Japan as well as  long answers which MEAN “no” in many parts of India. Watch for loss of eye connection and other culture-unique body language.

4) Ask the same questions in many ways. “Is Bill a good product manager”? If you had to chose between Bill and Marc, would you choose Bill to be product manager ? Would you choose Marc to be product manager ? Who would be best product manager in the clients’s view? You may get many different answers which are non consistent. And this in itself is a finding, indicating that “there is a problem I do not feel safe discussing with you.”There is no need to push anymore.

5) Use “future” scenarios. So, if you have asked how is Chuck as account manager and not yet received  a good answer, try asking “if Chuck were to leave, who would you chose as account manager”?  Then say, “in the future, would you choose between Chuck or X”. People will feel more free to discuss what has not yet happened.

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3 thoughts on “How to listen to what people are not saying-and get them to talk a bit more freely. 5 tips

  1. Yes indeed! 🙂 AND I know of at least 5 different ways for a Chinese to answer “No” by saying “Yes” … 😉

  2. Allon,
    Thanks for your wise tips on honing a “bedrock” skill, listening. It is the highest form of respect. Thank you also for reminding me to reach for an old book from my shelf: How to Speak and How to Listen by Mortimer J. Adler, who opens up Chapter VII, With the Mind’s Ear, with quote from Gertrude Stein:
    “Everyone when they are young has a little bit of genius; that is, they really do listen. They can listen and talk at the same time. The they grow a little older and many of them get tired and listen less and less. But some, a very few, continue to listen. And finally they get very old and they do not listen anymore. That is very sad; let us not talk about it.”

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