Why listening beats questions 6 ways to Sunday

Q: What is the difference between asking questions and listening?

A: One isn’t the same as the other, and neither is both.


Yesterday I was taking my turn, as a good natured Policy Officer, asking staff about the draft council plan.  I was stood outside the canteen on a Friday which is fish and chip day so the place is heaving, using all my paltry selling skills to extract opinions from the staff on 3 set questions.

I had heard colleagues asking what they they were supposed to ask, “would you take this questionnaire on the draft council priorities and fill it in over lunch?“. And I thought I could do better.

There was a bowl of boiled sweets on the table I was stood at, I picked it up and aimed it at people passing me, “Can I give you a boiled sweet?…” and as their arm was reaching out, already committed, I would continue, “…if you would answer me 3 questions?”. Not mentioning anything to do with “questionnaires” and certainly not mentioning “council priorities“. Christ, what’s a one of them when it’s at home? I then shoved a laminated sheet at the person, and asked them to have a glance through while bearing in mind the questions, “do these priorities make sense?” which was the first question.

I thought I was doing well, people were taking the sweets and answering the questions, I got about 8 sets of answers in my 30 minute shift.

I’m not going into the whys and wherefores and value of what I was doing, I was my turn so I did it.   I got 8 answers to questions I was supposed to ask.

What I didn’t get was answers to questions we didn’t think to ask.

Whilst I was standing there I was listening to people talking around me, talking casually to their colleagues, about their work. I listened to colleagues who work with vulnerable people, colleagues who ensure residents get the money they are entitled to and colleagues who supported everyone else in the council, helping them do their job.

Sadly I can’t say here exactly what was said, much as I would like to, the detail is too juicy for this place.  Potential future readers, wouldn’t like it. Things to do with bringing the organisation into disrepute, the sort of lazy-arse catch-all that people use when they don’t like what is being said.

Which is the point.

I can’t type here useful and interesting facts about the work, gained purely by listening, just as the really useful and interesting facts about the work can NEVER be gained by anything else OTHER THAN listening. They are invisible for the same reason.


Ok Ok Jack, that’s the news, don’t give me the weather

You can ask all the questions you like, but questions pre-frame the answers. The choice of question defines the answer. Pre-defined answers before you even open your mouth.

So if I ask someone , “Do these priorities make sense to you?” then what can a colleague say other then “Why yes, they surely do Nice Policy Officer” or the opposite, “Why no, they are in sentences, I can read sentences, but there’s more to it than that

I am not critiquing these particular questions, they were for a very particular activity, nicely phrased and thank God there were only 3 of them. But contrasting the answers I could freely hear floating around in the fish’n’chip scented air, it showed me the value of not asking questions at all.

I have never filled in a staff questionnaire that contained any sort of question that would elicit the sort of conversation that I hear around me at work. The answers are hidden because the questions are pre-framed by the mental model they come from, they can’t see the water they swim in.

If you want to find out, first shut up and go listen.


This entry was posted in me doing it, questions, thinking and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Why listening beats questions 6 ways to Sunday

  1. dancarins says:

    I mentioned to a colleague in a different organisation last week a piece of work I’d been involved with, visiting customers. He seemed impressed, despite saying “oh, we do that too.”

    The next week he phoned up to ask “you know that questionnaire you were talking about, can I have a look at the questions? Not to copy, you know, but to just have a look”.

    I scratched my head and asked “what questionnaire are you talking about?”

    “The one you used when visiting customers”.

    Questionnaire use is endemic. We must stop the contagion before it’s too late!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s