There is a funny story attributed to Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.” It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming”

The thing about listening is that it is closely connected to our self-worth, can you imagine a situation where no one is interested in “your story” and your thoughts. Being curious about someone’s story is honouring them with your time and attention; any derailment there leads to a swift erosion in self-esteem and self-worth for the speaker. There was a boss of mine who would seek out opinions from my counterparts and his eyes would glaze over when I had to contribute anything to the discussion, needless to say, it was extremely emasculating and demotivating.

It’s not What you say!!

This was an incident clearly etched in my mind. I was on an office floor that had about 80 employees and I was busy at my desk when I heard loud voices from the reception and I went over. I saw a middle-aged European man who was screaming and so livid, I could see his veins throbbing. I gathered that a subsidiary concern of the company where I worked delivered Broad Band internet and this poor soul was driven around the bend by shoddy service and bad customer care. He had to miss going to work and the last straw was hounded by the payments team for services that were not rendered. Now, there were many representatives from the organisation who were justifying their actions, this was clearly not getting anywhere and the man was apoplectic with rage. I moved closer to him and touched his arm lightly and he blanched and I introduced myself and told him in a soft tone“ I am not connected with what’s going on, I might not be able to solve your problem, but as an employee of this company, I am sorry that we have caused you so much trouble, I truly am. He looked at me for some time and continued to be angry till he sagged and said something I will never forget “That’s all I really wanted, somebody to say sorry! I made him sit down, got him a glass of water and we spoke and eventually, his complaint got sorted. I learnt a lesson in communication that day- sometimes; It was clearly not about “what was being communicated, but “how it was being communicated”.

Right from the first time, one enterprising prehistoric ancestor scribbled on the walls of a cave and narrated the events of the day to his fellow cavemen around a warm fire, communication has been considered an essential survival skill and it fostered a sense of community and delegation for a well-coordinated hunt.

How do you communicate with yourself?

When people talk to themselves, communication takes place within the brain. It embraces their thoughts, experiences and perceptions during a communication event. Behavioural responses on all other levels of communication essentially begin at the intrapersonal level. On this level, the individual forms personal rules and patterns of communication.

Mental models that exist in our heads and which have been programmed help us in making sense of the world we live in. Our own baggage of needs, values and beliefs help us make sense of all the data that comes pouring in through our senses. Thinking is a process of intrapersonal communication, really what is thinking? When your mind asks questions and answers it as well, that is thinking in a simplified manner, which brings us to a very important facet –Questioning.

This Socratic method of gentle enquiry has yielded rich results in various forms of communication. In fact, if there was one major factor behind successful and resilient leaders it is this –They managed to ask the right questions? Einstein famously remarked –“If I had an hour to solve a problem that would save my life, I would rather spend 55 minutes in thinking about the right question that needed to be asked, once I know the right question, I can solve the problem in 5 minutes”, there are questions that empower and questions that disempower! Any prizes for guessing what questions successful people ask more of?

I am sure you have been in meetings completely present in the moment, in the zone and you asked a question that made the listeners stop in their tracks, and you knew that was an important turn in the meeting, newer possibilities, focus and energy emerged as a result of that question. Consistent questions that are asked by leaders at the workplace speak a lot about the culture of that organization. Track the questions that are being asked at your workplace, If they are not forward-focused and empowering, there might be a dearth of superior evaluations. Questions have the capability to sharpen the focus between proximal and distal goals.