Radical Listening

By Cindy

“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime when you’d rather have been talking.”


Talking is rampant in our society. We live in a society of talkers, especially us extroverts. We want to impress others (probably more unconsciously than not) with the idea that we know a lot. We make statements far more than we ask questions. (Really stop and think about this…and just NOTICE how few questions you actually ask people, including yourself.)

Our lifestyles have gotten so fast-paced that we are very good at multi-tasking. This allows us to not be fully present. Who has time to really listen? Fortunately, my coach training has taught me valuable listening skills that have literally changed my life.

I titled this article Radical listening because most people think they listen well; however, they rarely do – not at a deep, intentional level. Listening this way is a radical act (“radical” meaning, “departing markedly from the usual.”)

Radical Listening - Cindy Valliere The Self Consultancy

The great American psychologist William James said, “The greatest need of the human soul is the need for appreciation, the need to feel important.” Listening is how we let someone know that we care. Most everyone we meet feels a deep longing to be heard. Often it seems that we listen better to our co-workers and bosses than to our spouses, partners, and children.

I recall attending a seminar where the facilitator challenged us to spend one day communicating only by asking questions—in other words, make no statements. Talk about difficult or near impossible! I encourage you to try this. As humans, we are so prone to telling people what we know versus gathering information—asking questions.

What do you listen for?

We might prefer to think that we are open-minded, but even the most liberal people have a tendency to ‘listen for’ specific possibilities, rule out all other possibilities, and filter everything we see and hear.

Start paying attention to what you “listen for”. It often contains a lot of prejudgment and preconception. In most cases, before you even begin a conversation with someone on a specific topic, you’ve already made a judgment about what they will say. You will “listen for” them to meet your expectations.

Say you’re the parent of a teenager. You came home and ask (as you have asked on many occasions), “Why can’t you be tidy around the house?” Then imagine that your teenager replied, “You know, I was thinking that myself. I’m going to start right now by cleaning my room.”’ You probably wouldn’t even hear what they said at first. You might wonder, “Is something wrong with my child?” You would almost certainly do a double take, because it would contradict the expectations you typically listen for.

The Incisive Question

Nancy Kline in her book, Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind, introduces the concept of the incisive question. This is a question that removes limiting assumptions from your thinking, so that you can think again. An incisive question does this by replacing the limiting assumption with a freeing one.

Look at what Nancy Kline shares,

“Let’s say you want to talk with Mrs. Smith, your boss (or professor), but you tell me you can’t do it. So I ask you, ‘What might you be assuming that is stopping you from talking to Mrs. Smith?’ You tell me that you are assuming she will laugh at you and that she will think you are stupid. After more thinking, you realize also that you are assuming that, actually, you are stupid.

That assumption sits there, a blob in your brain. You go through your whole day, perhaps even your whole week not talking to Mrs. Smith. The assumption holds you back from doing what you want and need to do. The assumption limits your thinking and thus your life. The assumption is simple, but lethal.

An incisive question will help get rid of your assumption of being stupid, replacing it with one that frees you to think of what to say to Mrs. Smith and then say it.

A statement requires you to obey, where a question asks you to think. Our mind resists commands. It responds to questions.”

The first thing you want to do is to identify the assumption: that you are stupid. Next, realize that this is an untrue assumption. Then, remove the assumption by replacing it with another thought: you are intelligent. Now, you can create a new question: If you knew that you are intelligent, how would you talk to Mrs. Smith – what would you say to her?

I use this technique with clients when they’re stuck and want to take action. I ask them: “What are you assuming here that is stopping you?” They listen to the answer, identify the assumption, and remove it.

Here are several incisive questions. Note that the first part of each question asserts a positive assumption; the second part directs attention back to the issue or goal.

Incisive Questions:

  • If you found out that someone you love very much is going to die tomorrow, what would you want to be sure that you said to them today?
  • If you knew that you are beautiful just as you are, what would change for you?
  • If you knew that you are as intelligent as your bosses, how would you present yourself to them?

Take time to really listen to someone today. Give the gift of a listening heart!

Book Sources: The Last Word on Power by Tracy Goss and Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind by Nancy Kline