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helping people help themselves

I’ve always put a lot of emphasis on making decisions based on logic and reasoning. People would ask me for advice and I would disregard most emotional factors, or at least value them less than rational ones. But then I realized two things: (1) People don’t want to be told what to do, and (2) People are people with emotions that are valid.

And last week I learned how to put these two learnings in motion when helping people work through their problems. I attended a workshop about coaching through active listening and powerful questions.

What is Active Listening?

Active listening is about consciously listening rather than waiting to speak. The flow of the conversation should be driven by the speaker and should not follow some predetermined agenda. It’s important to develop an understanding with the speaker to develop a cooperative atmosphere. Here are some things to consider when active listening:

1. Let the other person talk

Make it clear that you’re there to listen. They should be leading the conversation. Don’t make the conversation about you

2. Embrace the silence

Silence allows the speaker to share extra information. Staying silent also proves to the speaker how devoted you are to listening. It will probably be awkward, but you’ll get over it. Phrases like “go on” can help continue the conversation if the silence is unbearable.

3. Let them know you’re listening

Clarify what you’re hearing by paraphrasing and acknowledging certain parts of what the speaker is saying. Digging into certain word choices can undercover feelings that they might not be sharing yet. Reflect on what’s been said and confirm suspicions drawn from “reading between the lines”.

What are Powerful Questions?

Powerful questions are ones that provoke more questions. They are open-ended, surface feelings/opinions, and *should not lead the other person to a conclusion”. Here are some things to consider when asking active questions:

1. Investigate further underneath the surface

Similar to paraphrasing, questions should demonstrate your understanding as well as get the user to reflect on what they said. It’s also a chance to create clarity.

  • What did you mean by … ?
  • Can you tell me more about … ?

2. Challenge current assumptions

Questions should make the receiver consider their own assumptions. They might have a preconceived idea of what will/should happen, but that might not be the only, or best, choice.

  • What will happen if you don’t take this step?
  • Are there any alternatives?

3. Guide the person towards what they want

Once you’ve explored the problem space and you’re ready to start a conversation about taking action, questions can help the person consider options to move forward.

  • What have you tried so far?
  • What kind of help will you need?
  • If a friend was in your shoes, what advice would you give them?

Although these questions are good starting points, powerful questions should be reactions from active listening. My favourite question to ask is If a friend was in your shoes, what advice would you give them? That one really stuck with me from the session.