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How to get people to tell you their true opinions

And not things you just want to hear

Photo by Aiony Haust on Unsplash

Mindfulness is the cure to many contemporary ailments. Negotiating, persuading, debating are all skills that are enhanced with mindfulness. When assessing the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the person you speak to, be mindful of that person, of what you say and how you say it. Here are some anecdotes that serve well as elaborations:

1) The person you’re asking the question

I’m reminded of an anecdote I heard from a friend. A woman went to the emergency department of the hospital. She had been feeling odd for some time now, she best described it as being confused and having difficulties in processing thoughts. That led to her being depressed, although she was not sure what came first. She experienced a fall after she was startled by an unknown person in her home. When she fell, she realized no one was there, but her arm had been fractured. At that point, she called a member of her family to drive her to the hospital. After her fracture was taken care of, she was referred to a neurologist and after work-up diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. The neurologist explicitly told her that had she been referred to a psychiatrist she would have most likely been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Getting the right diagnosis, especially early in the course of a disease, is correlated most with being lucky.

The point here is that you need to know who it is that you’re asking a question. If the debate is the possibility of surgical removal vs medication use, a surgeon will most likely tell you to go get the surgery. If you have a cardiovascular problem, the cardiologist will stick to the cardiac part, the vascular specialist will focus on the vascular part. You get the drift. We all seem to rely on the fact that there is someone brilliant out there who can solve any problem at hand. I’ve yet to encounter such a person outside a TV show, although I’ve seen many who suspected themselves of possessing such qualities. They’re usually terribly wrong when they venture into areas outside their expertise if they have any.

2) The question itself

The most important lesson I had from my psychology class was the difference between close-ended and open-ended questions. Close-ended questions leave the respondent with little room for improvisation. He is reduced to yes vs no. Example of such a question is: “Do you like strawberries?” I find this question useful only for confirmation purposes and when you explicitly want to put another person in a corner. That’s not very amicable or reliable. Also, the truth is not best reflected with this type of question.

Open-end questions are explorative. You can learn a lot from a person by using those questions. Of course, if they wish to tell you. Let’s use another example here: “ What do you think of strawberries?” Now imagine that this was the answer: “ Oh, I like how they taste a lot, but I have a mild allergic reaction when I eat them raw. That’s why I like strawberry jelly, but I never eat fresh strawberries.” Of course, the person you’re talking to could say this even when someone asks a closed-ended question. But they’re more likely to answer this way after an open-ended question.

This knowledge was especially useful during college. If I wasn’t sure of an answer when revising some materials, or couldn’t find the solution to a mathematical problem, I resorted to open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions usually only solicited a yes or a no with little explanation. That’s quite unfortunate because the explanation is what I needed.

A close-ended question may signal a closed mind. From my experience, when a person enters the pharmacy and asks: “Is this supplement good for me?”, they do not wish to hear a no for an answer. They can be still told the truth, but if they do not want to hear it, they do not listen to it. Which brings me to my next point:

3) You, the person who is asking the question

I would like to suggest the following aphorism, which you might find cheesy: “ When faced with two choices, simply toss a coin. It works not because it settles the question for you, but because in that brief moment when the coin is in the air, you suddenly know what you are hoping for.” Before you ask a question, imagine which answer you want to hear. What would happen if you got a different response than the one you wanted to hear? Would you ask for a second opinion? Suppose you heard the answer you wanted to. Would you ask for a second opinion then? Are you really open to hearing a different perspective or do you just want a confirmation of your own thoughts?

There is no negotiation, persuasion or debate if you’re not really listening to the other side. Be mindful, so you can hear other people true opinions, not the thing you just want to hear them say.


How to get people to tell you their true opinions was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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