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The Secrets of Listening and Asking

Tetsuya Yamamoto
Executive Anchor, NHK Nihongo Center

Yearning to meet but unable to do so

As COVID-19 continues with no end in sight, many people may be feeling stressed or frustrated by online lessons and online communication. It is the first time that we have faced such tough restrictions on behavior and inconveniences in terms of communication.

Personally, I have spent forty years working as a sportscaster and an anchor, so face-to-face communication has constituted the basis of my work. Hideji Otaki, the famous actor who passed away in 2012, once said the following: "Meeting with people for face-to-face communication is essential. You'll never understand their true feelings unless you meet and take in their aura." I wholeheartedly agree--actually meeting with someone is the best way to understand their true intentions. I am sure that many other people feel the same way; after all, this is a basic truth of the world that we live in.

However, in the era of COVID-19, we now have to engage in conversation and communication while saddled with restrictions.

A world overflowing with listening and asking

Regardless of whether you are actually meeting face-to-face, how many times a day do you inquire to your family members or friends, or ask them questions? We always engage in repeated questioning in some form. Communication is the repetition of questioning, like throwing a ball back and forth. To be more precise, it is the repetition of listening and question. First, we listen to what the other party has to say, and then we ask them questions. Simply doing this one time would not produce a conversation or encourage communication. In this article, I will examine the world of listening and asking, drawing upon my own interview experience to learn how we can repeat this essential process of communication.

The three points of listening and asking

Stated simply, there are three main points of listening and asking: (1) using the words said by the other party to continue the conversation (like the Japanese word game shiritori), (2) facts, and (3) imagination. If even one of these points can be incorporated into the continuous process of listening and asking, the conversation will develop a rhythm, expand, and deepen. Now, let's look at each of the main points.

(1) Using the words said by the other party to continue the conversation

All Japanese people have played shiritori since they were children. The main key point consists of repeating the key words said by the other party, similar to playing a game of shiritori. In addition to helping you understand the important themes of the conversation, it also impresses the other party by those words and helps develop the conversation.

(2) Facts

The main points regarding facts are nothing more than asking for specific facts. For example, where and how something was done, and what conditions existed at that time. Asking for specifics makes conversation easier for the other party and helps to clarify the contents of the conversation.

(3) Imagination

Imagination is essential to expand and deepen the conversation. This technique consists of grasping the main flow of the conversation and engaging in metaphors or examples--"it's almost like the relationship between parents and children," "it's as if you were an artist," "it seems as if you are in charge," "she almost resembles a mother figure," etc. This kind of imagination will make the other party feel that their point is being understood and will increase their motivation towards the conversation. As a result, the conversation will grow more animated and deeper. However, becoming able to skillfully use metaphors and comparisons requires daily effort. Furthermore, in terms of imagination, it is also important to consider the meaning of your metaphors and comparisons, and what can be gained from using imagination.

Now, let's look at an actual conversation as an example.

The theme of this conversation is the passion of Person B at the current point in time.

◆Mr. A: Ms. B, what are you passionate about nowadays?

Ms. B: Actually, I've gotten really involved in the activities of the local fire brigade.

◆Mr. A: Really? Like a fire brigade that fights fires? Which fire brigade are you involved in? (1) (2)

Ms. B: The fire brigade in the neighborhood where I live.

◆Mr. A: Can anyone become a member of a fire brigade? (2)

Ms. B: Yes, as long as you live in the community, anyone can become a member.

◆Mr. A: What kind of activities do you do? (2)

Ms. B: Once a month, we use a firetruck and practice extinguishing fires.

◆Mr. A: So, you lift up the hose and run with it? And wind up the hose when you are done? (2)

Ms. B: That's right. At first, I had no idea what I was doing. However, older members of the brigade took the time to explain things to me carefully.

◆Mr. A: Sounds like a grandfather teaching something to his granddaughter, right? (3)

Ms. B: Exactly. It's like your grandfather from the country taking care of you. It's a lot of fun.

◆Mr. A: So, why did you decide to participate in fire brigade activities? (3)

Ms. B: I might be young, but I still want to contribute to the community in my own way.

◆Mr. A: What's the best thing about becoming a member of the fire brigade? (3)

Ms. B: Well, I learned a lot about the community where I live and I connected with other residents. I want to get even more involved in the future!

The example introduced above shows how each question asked by Mr. A corresponds to one of the three main points defined earlier in this article. The example is an actual conversation in which I participated. As you can see, the conversation deepens gradually.

It is extremely important to use the three main points of listening and asking; namely, (1) using the words said by the other party to continue the conversation, (2) facts, and (3) imagination. If you keep these points in mind, it will undoubtedly be of great use not only in your daily life but also in various situations in social life, whether at work or during your private time.

The value of not understanding

There are some important things to keep in mind when talking to people. As we get older, we also grow more prideful, just as surely as our cholesterol levels increase! It is easy to act like we know everything, but this is a big pitfall. As conversation progresses, things which were not well known are gradually revealed to the other party. Acting like you know everything will disappoint the other party and you will quickly lose trust. At that point, the conversation is effectively finished. Instead, you should honestly ask about things which you do not know. However, when asking questions, do not simply state that you do not understand; instead, it is important to specifically state the extent that you understand and the areas which you need clarification. It might be desirable that you'd better know a minimal basic knowledge necessary for a certain conversation; if so, you must show that you understand the overall theme but need more information on the details. Showing that you lack detailed understanding will motivate the other party to continue the conversation.

Asking questions and listening to yourself

Now that we have discussed the important points of holding conversations with others, let's switch gears and think about asking questions and listening to ourselves. What are your interests? What do you hope to accomplish? What makes you curious? What are your strengths? What do you want to improve in yourself? Asking yourself questions will lead to self-understanding and may even give you a deeper meaning in life. I hope that you will enrich your life by asking yourself questions.

In closing, always remember that the world is full of questions to be asked and answers to be heard. Never stop asking!

Tetsuya Yamamoto
Executive Anchor, NHK Nihongo Center

Tetsuya Yamamoto was born in Hagi City, Yamaguchi Prefecture.
In 1980, he entered NHK after graduating from the Department of Law in the Faculty of Law, Chuo University. As a sportscaster, he covered events such as the Koshien National High School Baseball Championship, Japanese professional baseball, marathons, and swimming competitions. He held positions such as an anchor on the sports section of the morning news program Ohayo Nippon, the noontime news program Hirudoki Nippon Retto, and the early evening lifestyle program Yuudoki.

He currently travels throughout Japan in the NHK television program Chiisana Tabi (Going on a Little Trip).