Last month I took a coach training class as part of my ongoing professional development. The class was based on concepts from martial arts, brought into a leadership context. In one exercise, we were supposed to push gently on a partner from different standing positions to evaluate our “leadership strength” in each position. At the end of my turn at the exercise, my partner said, “You were definitely not strong enough in your last position.” She then (this actually happened) immediately yelled for one of the instructors: “Heeeellllpppp!” The instructor came over, and my partner told him that I didn’t get the “expected results,” so I needed help correcting my form. I weakly tried to explain that I was deliberately trying my own variations of the techniques, but mostly I found myself somewhat mortified.

Thankfully, rather than focus on me, the instructor gently pointed out to my partner that a different option was to instead notice her experience of me, and to ask questions to expand and deepen her understanding. He gave this example: “I sensed that you were using less force on the second push. What was different about your own experience?”

As I reflected on this afterwards, I noted these differences between the two approaches:

  • A focus on the as-is experience (strength of push force) vs. creating assumptions and judgements (“something about this was wrong”)
  • An invitation to listen the perspectives of others (“what was your experience?”) vs. jumping to our own conclusions (“you need help”).
  • An awareness that the manner in which we approach each other can open up constructive conversations vs. closing down new learning and mutual understanding.

Although I have been trained as a coach to be open to other perspectives, suspend my assumptions and judgements, and listen to others, I can be just as challenged as anyone to put these things into practice. In addition to my personal experience in the coaching class, I got an extra, timely reminder from the May/June Harvard Business Review that a simple way to make this shift is to ask questions.

In The Surprising Power of Questions, the authors make the point that while some professionals such as litigators, journalists, and doctors (and coaches!) are taught to ask questions as part of their training, most executives are not. However, as the authors summarize nicely, questions can:

  • Spur learning and the exchange of ideas
  • Fuel innovation and performance improvement
  • Build rapport and trust among team members
  • Mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards

While the example my class instructor gave was a great example of a question to encourage learning and build rapport, a question like “What on earth were you thinking?” will likely have the opposite effect. The authors offer these research-based approaches on how to ask powerful, effective questions:

  • Ask follow-up questions. Follow-up questions solicit additional information. “What did you do on vacation?” [Response]. “What did you enjoy most about those experiences?” These questions indicate that you are interested and want to know more. The impact on the listener is that s/he feels valued, respected, and heard. If you earnestly listen to what is being said, with open curiosity, these questions will come naturally.
  • Ask open-ended questions. There are times when a “yes or no” response might be appropriate. But this puts bounds on the amount of information we give and receive and may close us off from useful conversations. “Did we meet our product launch date?” is quite different than “What successes and challenges did we have with the product launch?”
  • Be aware of tone. The authors found in their research that people are more forthcoming when questions are asked in a casual way rather than in a “buttoned-up, official tone.” While there are times when formality is important and necessary, consider how tone might affect the efficacy of conversations.

Questions are a powerful tool for leaders to better understand their employees, their organizations, and their challenges (and the solutions). Tap into a new resource for learning by shifting your communication style to include more questions.

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