THERE is more to hearing than meets the ear.

In this age of noise, more noise, and still more noise, perhaps the most confusing and misunderstood sound is the sound of silence.

Silence doesn't mean a conversation is dead; it may have simply lost its direction. You can regain control of things by asking leading questions - those that penetrate the confusion and guide the conversation to a desired end.

1. Be more specific

One of the most common reasons for silence is a lack of clarity in the words and phrases used. Generalities, clichs and unclear terms can disrupt the flow and content of your conversation.

Mark Twain said it well: "The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug."

Leading questions can help you nail down details and define terms. For example:

* "Does 'as soon as possible' mean you want those reports by the end of the week, by the end of the day or by noon?"

* "You said our representative was discourteous. Did he yell? Act disinterested? Ignore your comments?"

All of us have our own peculiar communication styles and mannerisms. Learn to recognise your own and those of others as you converse.

2. Get to the point

Conversations can digress into detours, and detours can take you far off the beaten path. Leading questions can steer you back on track.

* "Your primary concern is that everyone gets their input to you before next week's staff meeting - is that right?"

* "Of all our products, which one do you think is the most feasible within your budget?"

Know where you're going in a conversation and you'll know when you get there. Keep a careful ear out for those things that distract rather than direct.

3. Elicit feedback

The purpose of conversation is to exchange ideas and information in a give-and-take manner. Just as a tennis match is monotonous if only one contestant dominates, so it is with conversations.

Some people don't give any feedback; others give it, only insufficiently. Be alert and use leading questions to elicit the answers you're seeking. For example:

* "What other comments do you have regarding the product's reliability?"

* "In your opinion, which features interest you the most?"

Get the feedback first and avoid the misunderstanding later.

4. Reach an agreement

At times, nothing more is said because nothing more needs to be said. It is time to act and ask.

* "You probably want a matte finish, right?"

* "Being so displeased with your current service, don't you want to consider another vendor?"

There is a tendency to be gruff or pushy here. Don't be. You simply want clear, specific action.

Silence is simply another form of communication, but it can speak louder than the most adamant protests. If your goal is to maximise these quiet opportunities and have clear, concise, and effective conversations, leading questions can get you there.