The Talking Cure, Part IV (powerful questioning and attentive listening)

In the first part of Chapter 5 of my new book, I look at two key aspects of productive talk: powerful questioning and effective listening. In the second part of the chapter I survey various techniques for questioning and listening, argumentation, and debate as well as the role that personal responses—ideas, feelings, emotions, life stories—can play in the meaning making process. I end the chapter with an exploration of the values of good facilitation.

I can’t cover the whole chapter here (blogs, they tell me, are supposed to be succinct!). And I don’t want to overly simplify my book chapter—the ideas are complex and come from a variety of disciplines and structures (from business negotiation to medical training to Quaker worship).

But I would like to offer a few observations in today’s post that I believe most arts workers care about and want to explore in their interactions with audiences.

Powerful questioning refers to the ability to frame questions that can change the course of the conversation. These include open-ended questions offered as a way to prime a dialogue and follow-up questions employed to deepen and expand discussion and to help clarify ideas. In law school (at least in the movies), the professor employs powerful questions using the Socratic Method—a time honored dialectical process of hypothesis elimination attributed to Socrates via Plato. The goal is to push the student to responsibly defend her evidence.

In other learning environments, a less top-down version of Socratic questioning is often employed. As educator Rob Reich describes the use of powerful questioning in the Humanities, for example, all participants in the conversation must ask probing questions in an effort to expose the values and beliefs which frame and support individual perspectives. When this process progresses interactively, “the teacher is as much a participant as a guide of the discussion. Furthermore, the inquiry is open-ended. There is no pre-determined argument or terminus to which the teacher attempts to lead the students.”

Effective listening (sometimes referred to as attentive or active listening) is equally essential to productive talk. An effective listener is listening for meaning as opposed to strictly recording what the other person is saying or, as often happens, simply biding time waiting for his or her turn to speak. An effective listener is an attentive listener who puts all of his cognitive focus on what the other person is saying. An effective listener is also a sincere listener willing to put aside her beliefs and values long enough to absorb what the other person is saying.

Effective listening is understood as a valuable tool within many industries. As business consultant Judy Brown points out, successful negotiation of the inevitable difficulties of workplace culture is predicated on listening for information rather than for confirmation. Effective listening allows people to engage hospitably with others, even in tense discussions or debates, and thus allows us to learn how to be provoked “and not close down.”

doctor and patient

Finally, effective listeners are able to feed back what they hear to the speaker as a way to confirm their understanding. In some modalities, this ability is referred to as “active listening.” In the medical field, for example, the term is used in reference to a diagnostic technique called Active Listening Observation Scale (ALOS-global) and refers to a communication strategy for recognizing and exploring patients’ cues in the examining room. Active listening by physicians in a clinical setting has been shown to be a better method of gaining information about a patient’s status because “the very act of listening assumes that there is something to listen to, i.e. that the patient has the opportunity to talk and express himself.”

If the traditionally top-down doctor-patient relationship can be re-imagined (re-aligned) as an opportunity for productive talk, why can’t the serious arts? Imagine the possibilities for strengthening our national dialogue around the arts if audiences too felt they were worthy of being listened to and having something of value to add to the conversation.

At least part of the remedy lies in good facilitation. Stay tuned for the final part of this series of posts on The Talking Cure.

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