It has been one of the recurring themes of this blog that persuasive communication is about outside-in thinking—about understanding where the other person is coming from and figuring out how to connect your idea or solution to their needs. Of course, you can’t learn too much about where they’re coming from if you’re doing most of the talking.
One of the most commonly recommended solutions is to ask good questions. As I’ve written before, appropriate questions can get the other person to tell you what you want them to hear. You can’t reach the highest level of persuasive skill without having the attitude and the skill to ask good questions.
Yet, questions have their drawbacks, especially when you’re following a process to draw out the others’ needs. One drawback is that focusing too intensely on the answers you’re looking for can lead to inattentional blindness: as in the famous video where a man in a gorilla suit is not even seen by viewers concentrating on counting how many times a basketball is passed. The second drawback is that the conversation begins to feel like an interrogation, and your counterpart may become impatient in their answers or demand that you cut to the chase.
You can accomplish your goals and still keep it pleasant by brushing up on your following skills. These are the conversational tools you use to encourage and guide the flow to get better and deeper insight into your counterpart’s mind. None of the following will be a new revelation to any of my readers, but we can always use a little reminding.
The most passive way to follow the conversation is simply to keep quiet and give the other your undivided attention. Put all distractions out of your mind; quit worrying about your follow-up question—you’ll have plenty of time for that when the time comes. Why is it that people are so uncomfortable with “dead air”? Why do we rush to fill any microsecond of silence that comes up? Actually, you can use the discomfort to your advantage: I’ve often found that the most valuable information I get comes when I simply stay silent after someone has made their point. They will usually add something else, and what comes next is often more important than what came before.
You can also follow silently with your body language, particularly facial expressions and head nods. An attentive posture provides positive reinforcement and encourages further conversation. To be more active, you can also interject the occasional “encourager”, such as uh huh, really?, repeating a key word, etc.
Next up the activity scale is the use of probes. Instead of a formal prepared question, ask for additional information. The three most common uses for probes are to clarify, dig, or extend. Clarification probes make the meaning more specific. Digging is about drilling for more detail on the particular issue they brought up, and extending probes uncover additional issues along the same lines.
The most active form of following skills is reflecting back what you’re hearing, by paraphrasing or summarizing. This is an excellent way to show that you have heard and understood the other person, and gives them an opportunity to correct your understanding if necessary. The key is to make the paraphrase a statement instead of a question. In their book, Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning, Chip Bell and Marshall Goldsmith teach four different types of paraphrasing; it’s outside the scope of this article, but I encourage you to pick up their book or any of many fine books on listening skills.
The whole point is that following skills, while not difficult to learn, require a lot of practice to be turned into an effective habit. One way is to try a little deliberate practice: see how much information you can get the other person to answer all of your questions—without asking them!
Mastering following skills will increase the quality and effectiveness of your persuasive communications by making your conversations more pleasant and complete, and best of all, making it their idea to do what you want. Ironically, following skills will make you a more effective leader.