How to Have Savantlike People Skills: Ask A Question About the Other Person

The most amusing few sentences of this too-long but entertaining New Yorker profile of Arianna Huffington:

In the higher echelons of New York and Los Angeles society, merely asking a question about someone else is taken as evidence of savantlike people skills, but Huffington’s attempts at establishing intimacy can seem almost poignantly forced. “How do you recharge?” she will inquire of a relative stranger. “What is your favorite food?” Billy Kimball, the comedy writer, said, “She has that European woman’s gift of listening to you in a way that makes a person feel simultaneously fascinating and foolish. The person kind of fills in the end of the sentence, saying a little more than he necessarily wanted to.”
5 comments on “How to Have Savantlike People Skills: Ask A Question About the Other Person
  • Asking effective questions is not nearly as simple as it sounds. In settings which are freighted with power/profit dimensions, employees are often fearful of using questions that go to important issues. Furthermore, they have little experience with productive questioning. Questioning is not an innate language skill. As Stephen Pinker points out, the only innate language competency is a basic grammar that enables toddlers to put nouns and verbs together.

    Questioning skills are like networking skills: everyone believes in their validity, but very, very few have those competencies in place.

    Indeed, like a number of consultants, I have a big business in coaching and mentoring people in questioning processes. Many might be surprised to know that two consistent learning issues of top execs and officers are whether it’s appropriate to ask certain questions, and if they decide it’s appropriate, “how do you ask that question?”

    The kind of taken-for-granted simplicity surrounding questioning means that the public is usually unaware of the profound questioning needs–even those of top MBAs and PHYSICANS. Who wants to announce that they’ve hired a consultant to teach them to ask questions? Duh! You’ll get silence on that issue.

    Yet, Harvard’s Chris Argyris emphasizes the need for questioning skills as a major part of learning–and working with the “Ladder of Inference.” Today’s emphasis upon organizational learning drives the development of questioning skills: but for most, it’s a poorly developed skill–in desperate need of being institutionalized.

  • Martha: Actually there is a well designed and researched continuum of questions–based on closeness. The relationship tool of self-disclosure goes to questioning and intimacy. It’s built on reciprocity of questioning and asking, and goes through four stages; cliche talk and questioning, personal history and facts, personal opinions and preferences, personal attitudes and values. If the conversation stops, it’s because the other person refused to dance.

    One of the surprising findings was that in the most intimate of situations, both parties have to start out the talk and questioning with cliche talk. “How are you, what’s new, messy weather, etc.” This reads like a dumb-dumb, but in actuality when you listen closely that’s the way most of our successful conversations are initiated–even in the bedroom.

  • Agree with Dan.
    The art of asking questions from a place of curiosity
    – appropriate to the situation –
    goes against the grain of what is often modeled as leadership – that inherent push to “guide” someone to do or think something – rather than truly asking because one wants to know.

    I just came back from a medical conference where another speaker – on Inclusive Leadership – took that tack when asking the audience questions.

    While it irked me (something I need to work on, perhaps) and the person next to me, the apparent contradiction in message and medium for sharing it, was not something that came up in other’s conversations.

    Relatedly, when conflict seems to be brewing on a team project one helpful question to ask the group sometimes is
    might be be the most productive next step for us?”

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