In 1975, I was stricken with viral meningitis while attending a conference in the former Yugoslavia. While spending ten unexpected days recovering flat on my back in a Split hospital, my only reading matter was an English translation of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering the circumstances, that Taoism stealthily and permanently insinuated itself into my psyche.
In his beautiful and insightful book “Being Mortal“, surgeon Atul Gawande describes a mistake clinicians frequently make. They “see their task as just supplying cognitive information—hard, cold facts and descriptions. They want to be Dr. Informative.”
Atul contrasts this with an approach offered by palliative care physician Bob Arnold:
“Arnold … recommended a strategy palliative care physicians use when they have to talk about bad news with people—they ‘ask, tell, ask.’ They ask what you want to hear, then they tell you, and then they ask what you understood.” —Atul Gawande, Being Mortal, pages 206-7
Reading this, I realize that “ask, tell, ask” is great advice for anyone who wants to connect fruitfully in a learning environment. Personally, over the years, I’ve become better at asking people what they want to learn (ask) before responding (tell), but I still often omit the second ask: “what did you understand?”
The follow-up ask is important for two reasons.
The obvious reason is that without it we do not know if anything we told has been heard/absorbed, and whether the listener’s understanding is complete and/or accurate.
A less obvious reason is that asking the listener’s understanding of what he heard allows him to process his understanding immediately, not only improving the likelihood that it will be retained and remembered longer but also allowing him to respond to what he has heard and deepen the conversation.
“Ask, tell, ask” assists transforming a putative one-way information dump from a teacher to a student into a learning conversation. I will work to better incorporate the second ask into my consulting interactions. Perhaps you will too?