“There is a trend right now to hiring soft skills. People that can communicate, that can capture people’s attention, that have excellent writing skills. not just these facts and figures. That’s not going to do it. It’s your ability to present. It’s your ability to persuade. It’s the more rhetorical approach of I’m asking you questions that helps you synthesize the information, which now enables you to ask better questions. That’s what employers are begging for right now.”
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In this world where communication is essential to survival, we need to beware of having what I call “mutual monologues.” Chekhov was excellent at demonstrating serial monologues posing as dialogue in his plays: check out the “conversations” happening in “The Cherry Orchard.” We know what we want to say; we present our ideas; we often do not check to see if what we have shared has been understood–that is, understood in a way that can be acted upon, that can make a difference in both our lives. In short, we think that we and those that hear us are speaking the same language.
Throughout this podcast series, we have addressed language and learning language, language and culture, language and identity. Let’s remind ourselves that language is not just differing sounds and words among nations or cultures. Language is the expression of the world in which we, personally, each one of us, have grown up. Language is our identity. Language reflects the activities on which we have focused and the people with whom we have associated.
It is perfectly possible to be within a single language group (say, English speakers) and be speaking and writing in such as way as to be incomprehensible to those who are not in your cultural identity group. To me, my economist brother-in-law’s language is more impenetrable than a new world language; I crave an interpreter.
I use a humorous example in my own life, but the danger of problems arising from mutual monologues and assumed language understanding is very real: missed opportunities, misunderstanding, weakened relationships, anger. But the solution is simple. Simple and profound. Simple and needing practice. But simple: Ask questions.
Asking questions begins the process of monologue to dialogue, and begins to dissolve lack of awareness of the other. Asking questions invites true understanding. Such understanding can be very practical: finding pathways for groups to work together to accomplish objectives; helping a child to modify disruptive behavior; making sure what your selling is what people want. Such understanding can be very profound: uncovering needs, hurts, perspectives, fears, and pathways to respect, inclusion, and personal contribution to help heal this global family.
Questions bring hope. Questions bring hope. In this episode, Matt and I explore how and why questions reach far more deeply into the minds and hearts of individuals than sheer information. We also take a look at how groups – families, work teams, classes – can flourish with and by use of good questions…or shut down, break apart, and wither without questions that open possibilities in people’s lives and work.
We’ll continue to explore this in the next segment of my podcast with Matt Bailey, Episode 36, “Transformational Questioning.”
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[Introduction of podcast and guest]
Norah Jones: Well, Matt, I’m excited to talk with you and I know that when I’m looking at your SiteLogic and when I see the various wonderful strategic workshops that you provide, and I especially note the fervor with which folks thank you for the clarity of your work, your ability to create words and approaches that take complexity and turn it into something more straightforward. And to do it in a humorous way. That sounds like a great background. How did you get to do that?
Matt Bailey: That is a great, great question. I don’t think I’ve been asked that before. So I would put this, so my start was in the mid-nineties. I was out of university. I had an interest in the internet, but not really a way to do more with it. So I went into real estate. Now I had a journalism background, but what that taught me is that I didn’t want to be in journalism. I was money driven, so I went into real estate and I got into selling commercial properties, hospitality properties, bed and breakfasts, things like that.
And I realized very quickly that the market exposure that I had with local advertising was very small and I needed to hit a national or international audience with some of the properties that I had. So I started building websites. And so I taught myself programming. I taught myself analytics. I taught myself all of these things. And I think part of that experience made it easier to relate to people because I did not come from a technical background. I hate math, but I love language and I love… My mother said I was a born salesperson, but I think part of that is my father was a pastor and my mother was a teacher. So explaining, teaching, talking has always been a fundamental part of our family.
Norah Jones: That’s fascinating. And isn’t it interesting that you indeed went right to the linguistic part of it, the language part, the power there. That’s great, Matt.
Matt Bailey: Well, thank you, Norah. Where I want to start our discussion is because we talked a number of times before here. And one of the things that I think just resonated with both of us is the ability to ask questions. And I’ve seen a couple of examples. Now, there was a recent study that was done in business to business selling, and they were blaming the virtual selling because of the pandemic and people working from home that buyers weren’t responsive. They saw sales go down, but yet when they interviewed the people that the sellers were trying to sell to, it was a problem with basic sales skills. And one of the overwhelming comments was, “They don’t ask me what my problem is.” And I see this in a lot of areas where it’s almost… Even Neil Postman, who I love to quote, he said that question-asking is the best tool that humans have and I feel like we have lost the ability to number one, ask questions and number two, the ability to ask good questions.
Norah Jones: Those are two beautiful prompts. Absolutely. Please continue that question, but that was beautifully stated though, that parallel.
Matt Bailey: Well, thank you. Thank you. How have you seen this? From an educator’s standpoint, but also from a linguistic standpoint of asking good questions. Where do you see our culture or society? Is it something we’ve lost or is it something we’re just not teaching?
Norah Jones: Well, I think it’s interesting background, Matt. Those are such wonderful questions that, thank you for the questions. The questions about questions. This is an excellent way to start. We are in our educational system, historically I think, having related often to the yes-no type of question, the information-based question, where the question is designed to come from an expert who already knows what the answer is and to evoke that same answer from a learner. That pattern when followed for many years makes it seem like a normal way of approaching life. But in fact, before formal education where facts were being passed on that way, most questions were asked around a storytelling environment where people asked why questions. Why do we exist? Why is the sun doing that? Why does grandma totter instead of run? Any number of really excellent questions, often not so much to do with facts, although some of those were facts, but a lot having to do with what we observe about human behavior.
Storytelling and the asking of why is really coming back from the point of view of training for educators and pedagogically speaking to ask more why questions. I myself saw in my own students that two things were very important. One was to ask questions that engaged them in thinking about why or things that they could not just get to a single answer. They had to answer in a way that engaged their imagination. And it was coupled, and I feel very grateful to have been part of a research initiative years ago. It was a three-year research with our school system in which I just… I ate it up tremendously because it combined the power of asking open-ended why based storytelling type questions with wait time.
And a lot of the people that employed wait time in the research were folks that came from subject areas that were more like social studies or English. My area was world languages, specifically teaching Spanish and French, a lot of beginning students. And I did some action research in that providing for questions, both that were for practice purposes and also for discussion purposes combined with wait time. And when that was done, the impact on students’ understanding, engagement, clarity, ability to return and to ask another question, a better question of someone else was tremendously improved.
And then, Matt, if I might just to have one more example of something that just really moved me, I became by accident, if you will, by someone else’s request, a representative for a publishing company. And I remember to this day the power of showing up on a campus where there was an exhausted Spanish teacher coming out from the building in which I wanted to go. And I greeted her and I told her which publishing company I was from. And she said, “I don’t even want to talk to you if you’re not a Spanish teacher.”
And I said, “Well, luckily I am a Spanish teacher.” And I said, “What is it that you are looking for? What do you hope to do?” And she said, “I want grammar.” And I asked her, “What do you hope to do with grammar? Why is grammar important to you?” And she said, “I want my students to communicate better.” Well now Matt, to those of us in the world language education field, those are often considered to be two different things. Because I didn’t jump into answering the grammar question or the grammar need, we had a wonderful conversation and the district ended up adopting the materials that I was showing to them for communicative purposes. So I hope I addressed a little bit of the question that you had about questioning.
Matt Bailey: Yes, you did. It’s very interesting because even though we are, I would say we’re in different areas, but yet they’re so much the same. There was a discussion on LinkedIn last week about a fictional, yet pervasive situation where a manager asks for data and they receive the data. And then they asked for more data and the analyst gives them more data. And very similar, “What do you want?” “Well I want data.” But then, “Why do you want that? What is it…” I love how you phrased that, “What are you hoping to achieve? What is it that you want?” And if the manager would just share, “This is the problem I have,” or, “This is what I’m trying to solve,” the analyst would be able to not only just stop regurgitating data, but either direct or find specifically what will answer that question because, and one thing I’ve learned in the data field, it’s rarely in one place.
One chart will not answer your question. If it’s a good question, it’s going to take a lot of identifying where the answer is and let’s go find it and bring it together. But especially in this business area, efficiency seems to take over. And I’ve made this joke numerous times in my training. And it’s funny because sometimes I’ll talk about a situation and I’ll bring it up, and then all of a sudden I see people nodding.
And when they’re like, “Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about.” And one situation in particular is an agency comes in to share what they’ve done and the representatives are getting the report and the agency is going through a 50-slide deck of charts and tables and graphs. And I posed the question, “How many of you just sit there and shake your head, even though you don’t know what they’re talking about?” And then at the end of the meeting, nobody asks a question. Now, the reason why they don’t ask the question is because no one wants to be that person that asks a question and makes everyone stay another 10 minutes because everyone’s ready to get out [crosstalk].
Norah Jones: Please let us leave. Please let us leave.
Matt Bailey: Yes. And so I posed that question that, “Do you realize that because you don’t ask questions, you will never see improvement and you will be doomed to repeat that same meeting every month for the rest of your career because no, one’s going to change?”
Norah Jones: And isn’t it fascinating, I take you back to what you said before you began that particular story. Efficiency. Efficiency. What could be less efficient than redoing or never accomplishing or accomplishing only in part that which was your purpose in order to be able to rush through additional data or to get more on? It’s surprising. You’re speaking about online marketing and you’re speaking about training people in the marketing field, but I have in my head here the image of it’s very efficient to do an activity. I am thinking of one specific one in a textbook, which has 12 questions. Just get her done.
Matt Bailey: Right, right.
Norah Jones: But if one says, “What is our purpose here?” Provides a bit of data as it were, and then says, “How did the data, how does that serve your needs?” And spend time reflecting, because this particular, literally this particular activity of 12 questions in front of students with the questioning and then the wait time allowed for the reflection, which allowed for students to begin to bring in additional questions they had and specifically information that they had, that I didn’t know about the neighborhood in this case. And we ended up with a significantly higher achievement on the purpose for which we were doing that doggone exercise anyway, which was to speak about where things were found and when we went there.
This is important in language acquisition, of course. But the fact is that they became so focused on the why and the bigger picture that they more or less effortlessly went through working with the communication elements that otherwise they would have been afraid to use, they would have probably used more badly, and they would have been embarrassed to make more sounds because it weren’t perfect. It seems very analogous to what you are saying when you come to the end of a meeting and people are afraid to make a sound, potentially just to leave, but also to accomplish their purposes. Do you agree, Matt? Does it seem analogous to you?
Matt Bailey: Oh, absolutely. It’s efficiency as defined by, I would say, the instructor or facilitator. Is our goal for efficiency to get this done in a timely manner and move on to the next problem or the next meeting, or are we trying to be efficient in business, efficient in our learning? What’s goal? What are we trying to accomplish? So it depends I think a lot of how you’re defining efficiency, because that will be the justification for not asking questions or spending that extra 10 to 15 minutes in exploring things a little deeper.
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Norah Jones: You know, Matt, it’s so wonderful to feel the connection between what we would label in the world language education field as proficiency, that I never thought about it in terms of what you are speaking about with regard to marketing and to training forces and getting quality work done for corporations, companies, organizations. The turn to proficiency in the world language education world means that questions of all types are asked in order to become proficient in the language, not to accomplish the finishing of a chapter, the accomplishment of a textbook, the filling out of the grammatical chart, which is the equivalent of answering all of the data point questions it strikes me.
Matt Bailey: Absolutely. There’s the check boxes. You can go through that. I’ll say this, probably one of the… And I teach this a lot, especially when I teach analytics, which can be a very boring and dry subject. I’ve seen the reviews, but I teach people that to do analytics properly, and I look at it more of who are the greatest analysts I’ve ever worked with? The one thing they had in common is they could ask questions and they ask great questions. And the questions were all focused on business efficiency, business profitability. It wasn’t that they had a great business knowledge, but they would ask good questions about, why is this like this and could it be improved? And if it was improved, what would the impact be? They’re great questions. And when I was hiring people into my agency, that was what I watched for is what kind of questions they’ll be asking.
If they ask how to questions, right away that tells me they’re not self-motivated. They’re not doing their own investigation to do their job better. Put it this way, here’s one of my best analysts I had. I gave him a task and afterwards he said, “Well, how will I know the impact of that? How do you measure that? And what does it look like?” Oh, immediately. I know. I’m like, “Oh, let me show you.” Then I showed him more stuff and here’s how you can measure this and here’s what happens. And he kept asking.
Well, now he’s analyzing. So now he’s analyzing what he did, what I’m showing. And so he’s putting everything together and it’s creating new questions and you could just see the wheels turning. And it was all because he asked the right question rather than just that, “Well, how do I do this?” Which I equate that to, “How do I make you happy?”
Norah Jones: Yes. And it is the rough equivalent. No question. Well, there may be hope, Matt, in the sense or at least for language learning. And I think it’s happening in the other educational discipline areas. And that is many students and especially those that are currently found in our schools, both in the K-12 and also colleges and immediately afterwards are of a generation whose, shall we say reputation is appropriately, “I need to understand what impact this is going to have in my life.” They, like many students before them, but very effectively are asking the question, “Why am I doing this?” And part of what happens in language education is that the, “Why am I doing this?” Which was answered very rapidly, to speak with other people, is now becoming more finessed.
And because of the proficiency being developed with regard to a definition, examples, ways of working towards the achievement of various proficiency levels, now students are not only told why, but also given evidence directly in front of them so that they get feedback for what they’re doing and see scaffolded, as you have spoken about with your work, scaffolded direction in which they can move to accomplish the objective of being able to communicate clearly with someone. Not conjugate. That’s a tool, but that’s not the purpose. But to interact with people that are in target language communities locally or around the world. And that’s, I think, going to be a very powerful change for those folks that you will come across in the work that you do.
Matt Bailey: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Absolutely and it’s funny because I use language, language, language when I teach. I’m trying to think of the best way to put it.
Norah Jones: Tell me about that language, language here, Matt. Tell me about it.
Matt Bailey: Well, when I teach about knowing a target audience, for example, and who are you trying to reach? And I do a lot of work in search engines, search engine optimization, which by the way, you might be interested to know 2020 search phrases starting with the word why were increased dramatically. People typing in why and then the phrase into Google.
Norah Jones: Well, good for them.
Matt Bailey: Exponentially it increased. So I like a lot—
Norah Jones: Existential angst. Shall we say existential angst in 2020? [crosstalk] Is that what we’re doing, Matt?
Matt Bailey: I think that was a lot of it. A lot of it and people had time to sit around and think too.
Norah Jones: Yes. Lots of time sometimes.
Matt Bailey: Right. So I positioned this as, when I evaluate what people type into Google, it helps me understand not only what they want, but how they describe it. And I derive intent from that. When I know what they intend or what they’re describing. Now, from a business standpoint or from a marketing standpoint, I have to change my language. I can’t position my product. I have to learn what’s important to my audience and speak their language so that I can be found when they search for it. That’s just the basis of online marketing.
Early days, I would work with companies that they had their own internal language. They had their own internal, what they call the product and what it would do and they would put that on their website. And it wouldn’t be found by anybody because people were just entering in and searching for what their perceived need was or what their problem was or what they thought the product was. And if the two languages didn’t connect or weren’t the same, no one would be found. So I use, like I said, the language, language of telling them that you need to speak your customer’s language. You need to know what language they’re speaking in needs, in perceptions, in problem solving, because if you don’t speak that language, you’ll never meet them. You’re going to be off on the side just shouting into the distance your own language and no one’s going to hear you. So I use that language a lot in my training.
Norah Jones: How do you have people ask about prompt to find the language of those that you are trying to reach so that you can have a true conversation and not just two monologues?
Matt Bailey: I like to start with search data to see what people were searching for. What problems are they trying to solve? What distinguishing factors or intent that they are using. But then from there organize by intent, organize by buying cycle. Try and identify some themes to the words people use.
The next stage is taking that and then going and interviewing customers, previous customers, or not even people who are customers and get their perceptions. Basically clarify my assumptions that I’ve made in that research. And so now I want your opinions. I want your attitudes. Is my perception correct when I say this? Do you agree with that?
And so, I’m reinforcing my research directly to get more of that emotional level response. I take that data back and now I refine it again, group it, analyze it, break it down. So it’s that mixture of quantitative, qualitative analysis. And it’s a constant going back and forth. I’m deriving this information. Now I want to double check it. And when I double check it, I do tend to learn more things.
So, in that way, I’m getting closer to customers and I was working with one company and during lunchtime, we went to the mall across the street. Prior to that, I made them develop questionnaires. And then I said, “Okay, we’re going across. We’re going to stop people in the mall and you’re going to ask them your questions.” The looks of horror on their faces, because I think that’s probably the number one problem in marketing today is that people are not going directly to the customer to ask them questions. They’re relying on external data, third-party data, research data, but rarely are they talking with the end customer to get a true sense of their value.
Norah Jones: It’s a lot safer to play in your head in the sandbox than it is to get out there and start walking the roads and talking to those who are truly engaged in the direction you’re planning on going. Matt, you’ve been through educational levels of all types. How do you see what you have learned as applying back into education? Of course, I’m talking to you as a language educator. [inaudible] my very first interest, if I might, but just in general, the principles that you have learned, what do you see? What can you imagine in an educational setting that could be applied?
Matt Bailey: Wow. So much of it can be applied. From hiring, from teaching adults, to what I would love to see in education. I mean, I think it’s easy as a previous employer to say, “I want students who can express themselves better through writing and through speaking. Those are two skills that when I talk to other employers, other agencies, it’s very difficult to find anymore because even in business, and this is starting to take hold, and I’m so happy to see that is that I’ll teach you the skills I want you to have, but the intangibles are your ability to communicate.
And we call that the soft skills. And there is a trend right now to hiring soft skills. People that can communicate, that can capture people’s attention, that have excellent writing skills. Great, because those are harder to teach. They’re harder to instill. And now when it comes to optimizing a website, I can teach you that because you have demonstrated capabilities of reaching a level of understanding that it will be very easy for you to really integrate what I would call more tactical, discipline related content. That’s the trend that’s happening right now in business and I wish that would filter into the schools is not just these facts and figures. That’s not going to do it. It’s your ability to present. It’s your ability to persuade. It’s the more rhetorical approach that you had described of I’m asking you questions that helps you synthesize the information, which now enables you to ask better questions. That’s what employers are begging for right now.
Norah Jones: And it is so beautiful to hear that one can preach to one’s own choir, having you come in and say that so succinctly and beautifully I’m planning on posting you everywhere I can because to say to my students, as I did for years, it is the communication, but sometimes of course students and their parents and administrators, historically speaking, I think it’s less so now, are afraid to believe that, are afraid to invest in that. And one of the things along with world language education that I did for years that I enjoyed thoroughly is there are as you know, verbal sports, if you will, including forensics, which despite its other use of the name of a really icky medical stuff.
No, not icky. It’s wonderful, is the spoken arts. And in particular, I would coach extemporaneous speaking. It was powerful to bring in students who were scared to death to say something and provide them over an academic year and beyond, obviously, because one can do this for multiple years, the opportunity to take a concept and to begin to speak about it, to make some sense, to organize thoughts, to speak clearly, to choose the right word.
That and then a program that, frankly, I have to look again to see where it is. Perhaps you’ve heard of it, Matt, but I would certainly encourage anyone that is interested in this kind of experience for youth and collegians even collegiate because it’s all part of academics, Odyssey of the Mind. That coaching in that provided an opportunity for students to begin to ask these exact questions, given something to accomplish. All the rest of it was for students to ask questions and reflect and the coach to help to give that space for that. That can provide a huge change in what you are looking for and what employers are looking for, what we need for clarity of thinking, but also for, as you said, it’s beautifully said, you can train other things. It’s the communication skills, written and spoken, and that has to be annually a huge emphasis cross-curricularly. So that’s fascinating and very powerful and very encouraging for students who are still working. You don’t have to be a Picasso at it. You’re in eighth grade, right? Just start. Okay.
Matt Bailey: Yeah. Norah, let me ask you, how do you instill curiosity and curiosity that can find its form in a question?
Norah Jones: What a great question, oh Matt. I think one instills curiosity by first showing sincere interest in the individual as they are in front of you. Not what you expect them to be, not what you’d like them to be, not what they’re supposed to be by the end of the school year or by the end of this marketing year, but we stand in front of someone and say, “By our actions, I am very interested in you and your story. What already excites you?” Because if you can, in my opinion, tap into the humanity, help the person understand that they are worthy, they are valued. If you listen to them and they are able to start being vulnerable in front of you because they will if you demonstrate acceptance, then that vulnerability will begin to lead inexorably to what still remains untapped in their lives that they care about.
And then they’ll begin to ask the questions that they need to ask. Then they’ll begin to have curiosity because they feel safe. We have to feel safe and valued first, before we can get there.