“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”  ― Mary Oliver

“How does technology change us?”“What will your legacy be?” “For whom are we responsible?”

These are a few of the questions our client – aptly named “Ask Big Questions” – poses to society. Ask Big Questions provides tools and training to college campuses where students often face a culture characterized by recrimination and isolation. Ask Big Questions helps to move that to a culture of conversation and collaboration. They anchor their approach in carefully selected “big questions” that anyone can answer, and that matter to everyone. They invite participants to tell their stories. And they encourage an all-too rare form of listening replete with curiosity, open-mindedness, attentiveness and good will.

As part of our work with Ask Big Questions to explore new markets for their services, I did a lot of something I generally do my best to avoid: Cold calls. Dozens of them. Cold calls to people who had never heard of Ask Big Questions, of our firm, or of me. Cold calls to people in industries I know little about. Cold calls to people like the rest of us with jam-packed work days who want to get out of the office at a reasonable hour.

With this client on my mind and some trepidation about this potentially Sisyphean task, I was more conscious than usual about the questions I asked and the way I listened to the answers.

This led to a subtle yet powerful shift in the quality of both my questions and my listening. In turn, the quality of the responses were remarkable. Not only were people more willing to speak with me than I’d expected, they openly shared a surprising number of stories. A military chaplain described his encounter with a wounded soldier while deployed in the Middle East, and the conversation they had in the moments before he died. A community college dean reflected on the daily struggles her part-time, first-generation-to-college immigrant students face, and how starkly their college experience contrasted with her own. A residential life professional described how risky it felt when he changed the approach he had taken year after year to train residential assistants in a new way.

When I paid more careful attention to the quality of my listening, not only did the utility of the insights generated by my interviews increase, but the human experience of connecting with these strangers was an unexpected benefit. My work with Ask Big Questions has been a gift - it has offered a welcome reminder of the power of being fully present to another person in any context.