Think about three people who make you feel great when you’re speaking with them. Each of them probably listens well and helps you feel heard. How do they do it? By making one request in many ways. That request can be summed up in these three words: tell me more.
“I was early for the meeting, so I took a walk through the park.”
“I’m not sure how we’re going to staff all the new projects this quarter.”
Each of these statements offers us a chance to respond by opening and deepening the connection or by closing and narrowing it. Saying, “Tell me more,” invites someone to explore what they are feeling and thinking with us and helps give them space to register our interest in them and organize their ideas.
Tell me more is more powerful than asking why. “Why” constrains someone to the realm of causes and effects. “Why” makes people feel examined or criticized. Someone’s “why” may be too personal. “Tell me more,” helps someone express whatever is there and corresponds to how comfortable they are with us.
“Tell me more.”
“I’m not really tired, I’m just frustrated because … .”
“Tell me more,” helps us keep our assumptions and biases from interfering with our listening. When we start an innovation project and we’re figuring out what problem we’re trying to solve, good listening is mandatory. Without it, we won’t fully understand the problem we’re trying to solve as experienced by the people we serve, and the people who serve them.
Of course, we can’t say, “Tell me more,” all the time without annoying people. Here are a few ways to do tell-me-more listening.
Basic Tell Me More.
When someone stops speaking after completing a thought or story, allow a little silence then just say, “Tell me more.” Example — Rabbit: “How’s it going, Bear?” Bear: “I’m fine, I guess.” Rabbit: “Hmm, tell me more.” Bear: “I’m a little frustrated today.”
Here, you say, “Tell me more about [person’s own words].” Example — Bear: “I’m so tired of everyone thinking all I do is steal honey from bees.” Rabbit: “Tell me more about feeling tired.”
You can use something someone just said as a question that helps them dig deeper. Example — Bear: “It’s exhausting when I walk through the forest and nobody sees me as a true omnivore.” Rabbit: “A true omnivore?”
Allowing silence to extend into the uncomfortable will often prompt people to tell you more. Example — Bear: “I’m a herbivore like you, but I’m also a carnivore.” Rabbit: **silence** Bear: “I crave meat … when it’s easy to come by.”
Sometimes people will pause to think while speaking with you. Example — Rabbit: “I noticed you paused after you said ‘crave meat.’ What were you thinking?” Bear: “Oh, I was just thinking about how fresh meat smells and tastes and,” the bear edges closer, “that I haven’t had any in a long, long time.”
Notice when someone’s tone, volume, posture, pacing, range of expressions, or way of telling their story changes. Example — Rabbit: “As you moved closer, I noticed you started to drool a little. What were you thinking then?” Bear: “I was thinking about who might —” moving still closer, “join me for lunch.”
Listening isn’t interviewing, advising or negotiating. We aren’t asking questions based on our interests, and we’re not looking for certain outcomes. Yes, we listen while interviewing and negotiating, but when we’re doing tell-me-more listening, we’re serving our conversation partner’s needs by helping them develop and explore their own thoughts. We learn a lot from our partner while listening even though we’re focused on helping them go where they need to go.
When people gain a better sense of their thoughts, ideas and intentions while speaking with us, we’re a better partner in every sense of the word. It also helps people expect that kind of connection from our next conversation. Those positive expectations flow from the strength of our listening and fuel our bonds with the people we live, work and play with.
When we create innovation events, part of the work is building an environment that promotes and protects good listening. When we commit to developing a system for performing at high levels, we often seek skilled listeners like coaches, peers, friends, or professional organizations. Why? A good listener draws out insights we often don’t know we have and helps us organize our thoughts and intentions.
Thinking and solving like a designer requires listening deeply to build our understanding of how people make decisions and behave in different contexts. Without this understanding, our formulation of the problem we are trying to solve can end up largely unrelated to what people are actually trying to achieve in the world.