Someone, Anyone, Ask Me a Question

My guide gently lowered the big Brown trout back into the lake. As he cradled it just below the surface, the Brown slowly waved its tail back and forth. Its gills pulsated. And then with a burst of energy, it was gone into the depths.

I sat back in the boat. I finally had my Brown on day five of a six-day fishing trip to Patagonia. Not the largest Brown I’ve ever caught, but fat and beautifully colored.

The Browns are generally incurious about any manmade fly cast their way, more so than their cousins, the Rainbow and Brook trout. It’s just their nature. So if you are fortunate enough to hook one, it’s safe to say that for a moment, you had made what is fake look like whatever real bug was on the menu du jour.

Patagonia bound

I’ve endured the 24 hours it takes to get to this remote section of Argentina for the last three years because the fish are big and plentiful, and the casting isn’t terribly technical. We’re not generally casting beneath overhanging trees or around big boulders.

It’s also summer there in January, so it’s a delightful break from our typical daily NYC forecast this time of year: gray, damp, and cold.

The scenery – highlighted by the Tronador Glacier in the distance – is glorious. Every morning and evening the sun explodes off its ice and snowy shoulders as if to say “Yes, I am spectacular, aren’t I?”

The lodge where we stay is top shelf. I can’t imagine nicer staff. We are pampered by an incredible chef and enjoy some of the best Malbec Argentina has to offer. There is always a roaring fire to greet us as we straggle downstairs for breakfast. While it’s summer in Argentina, we’re backed up against the Andes Mountains, so it can easily be 50  ͦ F or less before the sun heats things up.

“Hello, I’m…”

And I come to meet fly fishers, and maybe make a new friend or two. I am not a novice, nor am I an expert, so there is always something to learn from someone.

I am by nature shy, but with only 14 guests, introducing myself is not like attending a knees-knocking networking event in a hotel ballroom. I easily introduce myself and ask where the other guest is from. I ask about their occupation. I ask about where they’ve fished before.

And I wait.

Maybe it is the curse of being a coach because asking questions is easy for me. I’m genuinely curious about people. But what I’ve found is that the more questions I ask, the more they tell about their lives. They are like the proverbial heavy flywheel, turning slowly at first with my initial questions, but then rotating seemingly on their own.

They do like to talk about themselves, I note, as we gather together for one meal after another.

And I wait.

There is a point toward the end of the week when I look around the evening dining table – everyone now engaged in amiable conversation with their neighbors – and I imagine picking up a spoon and clinking a nearby wine glass.

The room falls silent, and everyone looks at me.

I address everyone by name, and note something I’ve learned about them during the week. When I finish addressing them, I ask. “Now, who can tell me something you learned about me?”

And I wait.

The case for being curious

In the old days, my inner critic would have had a field day with my observation: “No one cares about you,” he would have whispered. But when I look at my imaginary nemesis now sitting over in the corner, one leg gently crossed over the other, filing his nails. He looks up and shrugs as if to say, “Don’t look at me.”

I’ve come to understand that it’s not me. Most people, like that big Brown I caught, are seemingly incurious. They will talk endlessly about themselves, but we will have peace in the Middle East before they ask a reciprocating question.

“Do what your father-in-law does,” my wife suggests as I relate this observation via FaceTime one night. “Just tell them.”

My father-in-law is a practiced master at getting his story out without being asked. Within scant minutes, whomever he’s talking to will know (1) he taught English literature for 35 years, (2) became an executive chef for four years and (3) ran a gourmet food and wine tour to Italy for 21 years. It’s uncanny. We joke about it at home, but he’s brilliant.

“Somehow when it comes to me,” I say to my wife, “it feels like self-promotion.”

“Well, then, don’t complain that no one asks you about you. You can’t have it both ways,” she concludes without looking up from her online chess game.

Let me be clear about something. What may seem like whining here is not about fairness, it’s really about wanting to develop a deeper connection with another human being. As my dear friend, neurologist Melissa Hughes Ph.D. just wrote:

One study asked subjects to engage in a process called “reciprocal self-disclosure” whereby strangers pose and answer personal questions. They found that people were rated as warmer and more attractive if they showed real curiosity in the exchange. This implies that demonstrating curiosity towards someone is a great way to connect with others.”

So, let’s connect already!

The next day I have the legitimate opportunity to slip into a conversation that the book I co-authored is coming out this March. That statement lands like a perfectly cast fly I’ve put down right in front of a trout.

“It’s. Right. There! Crush it!” I scream silently to my breakfast partner.

Nothing?

No “Wow, you wrote a book? That’s amazing!” No “What’s it about?” No “Who is the intended audience?”

A fellow coach, Michael Bungay Stanier, urges in his new coaching book for non-coaches to “stay curious a little bit longer.” But what if they’re not curious to begin with? What happens then?

Sigh…

“Don’t be interesting. Be interested,” goes the old expression. Maybe I will have a bespoke T-shirt printed with that expression and wear it around the lodge next year.

Too obvious?

OK, so maybe next time, I will just put my hand out and say “Hi, I’m Jeff. Jeff Ikler.” I will leave the words there like my fly on the water and wait.

And maybe, just maybe, a big Brown will rise to the occasion and take it.

Jeff Ikler
Jeff Iklerhttps://www.queticocoaching.com/
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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  1. I had to come back to pt. 1 after reading pt.2, Jeff. . . I’m not sure how I missed this the first time, except perhaps not being curious enough to search out where you were writing these days. . . Thankfully Dennis connected and made me aware of this platform. . .

    Anyway, this nails it, my friend, “Don’t be interesting. Be interested,”. I’d echo Kimberly. It is a lonely feeling and I too have been there many times. A a natural introvert, I’ve really had to work at asking those questions and work to become an adapted ambivert. Of course many times, like you its not reciprocal, but then again, you had the fish, Patagonia, the river and as you know, you never step into the same river twice. . .

    • You and I discover more alikeness every time we talk. “A natural introvert; adapted ambivert.” The lonely feeling…

      You are right, I did have the fish and the environment – the saving graces. Thanks for the read. How’s your writing coming?

    • I love it and I see you are a man after my own heart. Being an avid fly fisher and guide it touches my soul. It reminds me of the stories I write on fly fishing. I have to say that you did nail it. I have stood there with others or at a breakfast table ready to share and it was as if I were alone. Even when there were attempts to share, it fell on deaf ears. I know that being an avid talker myself, in the past, I had that tendency to want to share and not hear. It was something that I had to work on and I still do every day. It took me a while to understand that to be a good conversationalist, it takes both to hear and speak. That expression “Don’t be interesting. Be interested,” speaks volumes. Thank you so much for sharing.
      I hope to always be more like the brown, waiting to inhale that dry that is floating delicately on the surface.
      I will say this, fly fishing for me, is a spiritual connection between me, the water, the fish, and tranquility. If there were not another soul around, I would be ok. I have a lot of conversations on the water that are never answered and never heard, well, by human ears anyway. :)
      Thank you for sharing this piece.

  2. Love what you have to say here Jeff. The lost art of being a good listener – most of us are too busy waiting to interject OUR next thought to really listen to what someone else is saying. I had to work on that…..not that I wanted to talk about myself so much, but I wanted to become a better husband, dad, and friend; for me that meant in large part becoming a better listener. I’ve been in a number of counseling type situations over the years – other than injecting a brief personal experience that showed I could relate to their story, I listened. My best relationships, though, involve people who are genuinely interested in what I have to say – they want to know about my life….and visa versa. I treasure those people. Then there are those folks who ramble on about subjects of absolutely no interest to anyone but them! Nervous chatter I guess.
    So, Jeff, what is your book about?

    • Mike, thanks for your thoughtful reply. Yes, I have wondered about underlying “nervous chatter.” Is the person who is going on and on and on about himself (or herself) merely insecure, and one way to compensate for that is to dominate the airwaves? As I think back on my experience in Patagonia, the individuals who behaved this way clearly lacked emotional intelligence because they were not picking up on any signals from their listeners.

      Ah, the book! Thanks for asking, Mike. It’s entitled Shifting; How School Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change. My adult life has been spent in education, first as a teacher, then as a publisher of educational materials, and now as a coach of educators. The book outlines how leaders can help shift (1) disjointed efforts of change to coherent efforts at change; (2) focus more on the people executing the change than on the mechanics of the change process and (3) view leadership as a set of behaviors that develop other leaders rather than as qualities of an office.

      Descriptions and reviews here: https://us.corwin.com/en-us/nam/shifting/book267770#description

      Thanks for asking! You made my day.

      • I agree with your take on nervouse chatter people lacking emotional intelligence – this makes sense as I think about of few of those folks in my life.
        Your book sounds very interesting – I used to work for state government…..trying to initiate change was like making a quick turn with an aircraft carrier!

        • In the case of school systems, it can be more like PT boats. School systems are bombarded with mandates to changes and suggestions to change, and often the systems find themselves having not made a complete change before something else comes along. The result is often staff exhaustion. One of the educators we interviewed for the book said change is like “flavor of the month.”

  3. “Don’t be interesting. Be interested.” BAM! There it is! Jeff, I do believe that you and I share the same mind space sometimes. You have made such a compelling case for being curious…. genuine curiosity about the people we interact with either face-to-face or virtually. I cannot wait to continue this discussion with you face to face!

  4. Jeff, what you described is exactly what reliance on electronic / digital communication has done to us: We talk at people, placing our thoughts in front of each other as small sound bites on a plate to take or leave, rarely considering whether to respond with questions or curiosity.

    I’m so grateful for the small group gathering in Chicago to shift that trend and connect more deeply. As Melissa Hughes and Dennis Pitocco are describing as “redefining social engagement.”

    We can model what we want to see, and even assert where we have something in common – sharing a story that comes to mind when we hear the answer to a question, to encourage better listening and find a way to connect that is less one-sided.

    See you in March, my friend.

    • Thanks for the read and comment, Sarah. I suspect that you are right, at least in part, that we are experiencing the result of our reliance on electronic and digital communication. But I have seen the same behavior exhibited by those not raised on digital tools, so I suspect there are other factors at work, too. For example, given the extreme political divide in our country right now, we are less likely to engage in any meaningful dialogue with relative strangers. It may be unconsciously safer just to keep the conversation one sided. Me, me, me.

      I look forward to exploring this with you and others in March.

  5. Jeff, I enjoyed this story and could relate. Thank you so much for sharing it and for weaving a tale around fishing. You got me – hook, line, and sinker. I’m curious by nature, so I ask questions and am generally interested in learning about people, places, and things. But I get it. Not everyone is a conversationalist. Still, when you are someone who enjoys a good conversation and getting to know people, it feels strange to engage with someone who isn’t that engaging.

    • Strange indeed. I found myself on a couple of occasions thinking of Winnie the Pooh’s favorite expression “Oh, bother” and looked for the most opportune time to extract myself from the other person’s monologue. Thanks for the read and comment, Laura.

  6. Great story Jeff. Argentina sounds magical at that time of year – I may take up trout fishing to find out. I’ve been on both sides of this coin. A younger version of myself was very much into self promotion. As some may say, I was a social butterfly. But at the end of the day I was also pretty self-conscious and I cared very deeply what others thought of me. The slightly older version of myself has learned a few hard lessons along the way and I greatly prefer listening and asking questions over boasting about my accomplishments.

    I don’t think folks have lost the skills it takes to have conversation. I truly think most folks don’t really like themselves. And if they make you like them, that makes their internal battle a little less painful.

    • This is a fascinating thought: “I truly think most folks don’t really like themselves. And if they make you like them, that makes their internal battle a little less painful.” The irony being, I didn’t like them because they were endlessly boring. On the other hand, they could be hugely narcissistic.

      I would encourage you to take up fly fishing. The fly fisher women I’ve encountered on my travels have uniformly been excellent, I think, because they instinctively relate to the line and rod differently than men. They are less likely to try power the line than just be with it as an extension of themselves.

      Man or woman, there is a grace to casting well that I liken somewhat to ballet. Thanks for your read and comment.

  7. Oh my gosh, Jeff! That is the loneliest feeling. I too have been there more times than I can count. I often feel sad afterward, for it feels so shallow. Or I end up resorting to asking a million questions and it all feels so one-sided that I’m exhausted afterward. What could have been an experience that refilled my bucket only emptied it. But oh! You painted such a breathless picture of Argentina! I can hardly wait to talk about it when I see you in March!

  8. What a wonderful article, and sadly, so true. When did we lose the simple art of conversation? Of connecting with another human being by actually listening and responding? I suppose it’s easier to spill your guts to hundreds of “friends” online than to engage in an authentic one-on-one. “You talk, I listen and respond. And vice versa. And maybe, we’ll both learn something.” Thank you for sharing this.

    • Thanks, Sherry. There were a couple of guys on the trip who were simply listening to respond. They couldn’t wait for anyone to finish – not just me – before they plunged back in with one of their myriad of stories. Sadly, they were both nice guys otherwise, but I found them exceedingly boring. Thanks for your read and comment.

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