Have you ever had someone ask you a question and never give you a chance to answer; they continue talking as if the answer wasn’t relevant or as if they already knew the answer? How annoying is that? God forbid they actually answer the question for you! This is not a conversation because there is no engagement.
Another example of this lack of engagement is when the questions are closed, requiring a yes, no, or some other monosyllabic reply. These interactions often occur with teens. Questions like, “How was school today,” or “Did you have fun tonight?” The answers are yes, no, alright, or I guess. No real information has been exchanged. No real engagement has taken place. Whether we want to admit it or not, these types of dialogue are useless.
The formula for true dialogue, for true conversation is: open-ended questions + active listening = engagement. As an educator, I could get very academic with this, but that is not my purpose. What I’m after as a person, as a writer, as a blogger, and as an individual in relationship with other individuals, is true engagement, true dialogue, real conversation.
This can only happen if we are truly interested in what others have to say. Their experiences, their worldview, their opinions, must be as valuable to us when we are talking as our’s. That doesn’t mean that we won’t disagree from time to time, but it does mean we understand the basis of someone else’s point of view. After all, conversation by definition is an exchange of thoughts, ideas, and/or feelings between people.
Generally speaking, conversations are the tools we use to build relationships. Dialogue implies interest. Open-ended questions also imply interest. If I want to know what you think, how you feel, what you believe, or what experiences you’ve had with the topic at hand, I will have to ask you. An open-ended question is one that requires a thoughtful reply. (Even is a person lies, they have to think about it first.) The response will not be a single word that does not lend itself to further conversation or understanding.
What have you been doing with your time during the quarantine? What are you doing to maintain your mental health during this time of social distancing? How do you think the economy will bounce back from all the shutdowns? What laws would you like to see instituted to stop police brutality? What experiences have you had with people outside your race? How would you want your grandchildren to respond to racism? These are open-ended questions. These are questions that allow the other person to respond from within their scope of knowledge and understanding. A discussion may develop not only in the moment, but over time.
Having good open-ended questions isn’t enough though. We must also be active listeners. As mentioned above, it does no good to ask questions if we aren’t going to listen to the answers. Active listening requires us to not only hear, but to be attentive. Have you ever had the experience where someone told you something and you walked away thinking, what did they just say? You heard them, but you were not attentive. Maybe you were texting while they were talking, or maybe you were thinking of your to-do list. Worst yet, maybe you were thinking you already knew what they were going to say and simply dismissed it until you realized that’s not what they said at all. Active listening withholds judgement, advice, and preconceived notions. Active listening reflects on what the person is saying and seeks clarification when in doubt of the meaning of what they said. Active listeners can repeat what a person has said to them because they gave that person their full attention.
When active listening is paired with open-ended questions true engagement take place. These communication skills can develop relationships where everyone feels safe to express themselves. More than that, relationships move from the superficial to the authentic relationships we value most. When you value what someone has to say, you begin to value them. (In today’s vernacular, when you know where they are coming from, you know if you can hang with them or not.)
When we are really listening, we don’t interrupt the other person. We don’t argue with them even when we don’t agree. We are able to say, “I know how you feel and what you think, but that’s not how I feel or what I think so we’ll need to come up with a working compromise. (Lord, I wish we were all mature enough to do this.) Of course, this whole conversation is based on the assumption that true engagement is our goal.
True engagement is not only about developing relationships, but about drawing closer in those relationships. Meaningful relationships only occur when conversations move from polite dialogue to significant interpersonal investments. (See Jan. 6 Blog: Personal Investments) Things like empathy, sincerity, interest, mutual respect, commonality, compassion, and camaraderie come out of true engagement.
In these tumultuous times, we need the formula of true engagement more than ever. Through it, we can extend our knowledge and our freedoms as citizens and as individuals who are still in this thing – all these things – together.
Try It! Share it! Do it! Open-ended Questions + Active Listening = True Engagement.