The Benefits of Leaders Asking Powerful Questions

questions

 

This is a guest post by Fred Halstead, founder and principal of Halstead Executive Coaching and author of Leadership Skills That Inspire Incredible Results*.

 

The Leadership Skill of Asking Questions

Powerful questions will help you learn both about the person you’re speaking with and the subject you’re discussing. You can find out how the person thinks and what is important to them, based upon what they say and don’t say. The more you continue to ask powerful questions, the more you will accomplish both. This confirms George Bernard Shaw’s point: “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” So often we fall into a trap in which we believe we understand each other and grasp the concepts being explained, only to later find that it was almost as if we were speaking a different language to one another. Continual probing and on-target questions will help both you and the other person arrive at the best solution and learn more about each other and yourselves.

 

“The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” -George Bernard Shaw

 

It seems obvious since we spent two chapters discussing the importance of listening, but when a question is asked, allow the other person the time to respond. You want to be sure that thought processing and critical thinking are at play. I had one client who felt that the reason the respondent didn’t answer immediately was that he or she didn’t have an answer. If you want a quick answer, there is a really low probability that you will gain a truly thoughtful answer. If your expectation from a thought-provoking question is a quick answer, you risk the other person being frustrated in a nonproductive way, with you and with themselves.

Powerful questions also satiate your sense of curiosity. When you are curious, you want to learn more and you will more naturally ask questions in ways that will maximize the other person’s thinking. When the right question does not come to mind or the person was not clear in what he or she said or was trying to say, you can always respond: “Tell me more about that.” This simple phrase will expand the other person’s thinking as they further verbalize their thoughts and your understanding of what they are saying. When one is not naturally curious, the desire to respect the other person by exploring their thinking provides a solid motivation to ask questions that bring out the person’s best thinking. Instead of saying, “Stay thirsty, my friend,” as Jonathan Goldsmith did in the Dos Equis ads, say to yourself, “Stay curious, my friend.” Lack of curiosity can be the foe of getting to the best result.

 

“Lack of curiosity can be the foe of getting to the best result.” -Fred Halstead

 

Powerful questions are perfect for discussing sensitive matters. Asking difficult, tough, or edgy questions can be hard for even the most veteran leaders, but those who want their colleagues and team members to succeed will of course need to ask some from time to time. As a coach, I ask those questions fairly often to bring out my client’s very best thinking. When the person is asked a tough question that reflects on them personally, you will find it interesting, maybe surprising, and rewarding to first ask for their permission to ask a difficult question.

The typical question is simply something like: “May I ask you a tough question about all of this?” (This is one example of when a yes/no question is wise.)leadership skills book cover

Tough or difficult questions are direct and go to the heart of personal accountability and, at the same time can inspire a higher level of performance. Examples of such questions include: “In retrospect, what could you have done differently to create the outcome we wanted?” or “What was an even better way for you to handle that?” These questions will help them reflect on their decisions and actions, and also on what they can do in the future to improve. A question such as, “What do you need to do to greatly improve this situation?” or “What specifically will you commit to do differently when this or a similar situation arises?” may feel too pointed at first, but it will lead to them being more reflective and thoughtful, help them avoid the same actions in the future, and to grow as a leader. These kinds of pointed questions also demonstrate that you care about them as a person and you care about their success—and they reflect clearly on who is responsible. They have no sense of “gotcha,” which tends to make it about you more than their responsibility.

 

“When you are curious, you want to learn more and you will more naturally ask questions in ways that will maximize the other person’s thinking.” -Fred Halstead

 

Ask Questions that Touch the Core

Why We Must Learn to Be Uncomfortable

Learn to Be Uncomfortable

One of the most important skills today is the ability to be comfortable with being a novice. The world is changing so fast that new skills and knowledge make all of us feel uncomfortable. Embracing our inner novice, being comfortable with being uncomfortable, and accepting being bad at something on the way to mastering it is the most important way to stay ahead.

 

“The ability to learn quickly is the most important skill to have.” –Erika Andersen

 

So argues Erika Andersen in her latest book, Be Bad First: Get Good at Things FAST to Stay Ready for the Future.

Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a firm that focuses on leader readiness. She’s the author of three other books:  Leading So People Will FollowBeing Strategic, and Growing Great Employees. All of her books are full of actionable advice from her three decades of advising and coaching executives.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Erika about her research into being comfortable with being continuously uncomfortable.

 

Be Bad First 

What does it mean to be bad first? 

It means being willing to go back to being a novice – to being not-good at new things – over and over again. As we move through our lives, it becomes increasingly challenging to accept the need to “be bad first.” We come to rely on and identify with our expertise; we get used to being treated as knowledgeable and experienced. To have to go back to being a beginner in order to acquire new skills and knowledge – especially in the public setting of work, in full view of our employees, bosses, and sometimes our customers – can be scary, embarrassing and frustrating. I wrote Be Bad First because I’ve come to believe that in order to succeed in this ever-changing world, you must be able to learn new things continuously and well – and that requires, among other things, getting good at being bad first.

 

“I am still learning.” -Michelangelo

 

There’s a generational change from Boomers and Gen-X to Millennials that is also at play. How do different generations react to this concept? 

Generally, we’ve found it’s somewhat easier for younger folks to be bad first in the service of learning new skills. They tend to be still in the process of developing their expertise and are often therefore less “stuck” in what they already know. Also, most Millennials have grown up experiencing daily change in technology, communication, society, and business – for them, keeping up with ever-accelerating change has been the norm for their whole lives. However, many Millennials have a hard time with other aspects of new learning – especially Aspiration and Neutral Self-Awareness.

 

4 Mental Skills for Learning

 

1. Develop Aspiration

Let’s talk about your ANEW concept. A, for Aspiration, is the first step.

The model at the core of Be Bad First consists of four mental skills for learning that we call ANEW: Aspiration, Neutral Self-Awareness, Endless Curiosity, and Willingness to Be Bad First. Becoming adept at these skills will allow you to be a high-payoff learner, a master of mastery.

Aspiration means, quite simply, wanting something that you don’t now have. In terms of learning, aspiration is key because we only learn the things we want to learn. For instance, you can say over and over that you want to learn Spanish – but if you don’t make the required effort, it means you don’t really want to do it.

 

“Great learners unearth and then build their aspiration.” –Erika Andersen

 

I believe we often tell ourselves we want to do things because we worry that if we don’t actually want to, there’s nothing we can do about it. Fortunately, that’s not true. You can change your level of aspiration: you can make yourself want to do something. The secret is to identify benefits that are personally motivating to you of doing or learning that thing, and then envisioning a future where you’re reaping those benefits. (You may have noticed that you do this automatically when you do want to do something.)

So for example, if you decided to ramp up your aspiration to learn Spanish, you’d think about ways in which you might benefit from doing that – and perhaps the one that really resonates for you is that it would enable you to be a part of the team that’s expanding your company into the Chilean market. You imagine yourself in a couple of years, on that team, living in Santiago and building new business. If that’s personally exciting to you, I suspect you’ll suddenly find yourself taking real steps to improve your Spanish.

By the way, the problem many Millennials have with Aspiration is their belief that wanting or not wanting to do things is permanent and unchangeable – and they tend to reinforce their not-wanting by saying things like “No, I don’t want to – it’s just not me.” However, I’ve worked with Millennials for whom the idea that they can consciously change their level of “wanting” is hugely liberating, once they accept it.

 

 2. Cultivate Neutral Self-Awareness

N, Neutral Self-Awareness. That one grabbed my attention. I think all of us have witnessed someone who is completely unaware of something – thinking they have a strength when everyone else knows it is a weakness. What’s the best way to see yourself objectively? 

Wonderful question! The place to start, when trying to become more neutrally self-aware, is to note how you’re talking to yourself about yourself. Our self-awareness (or lack thereof) lives in our mental monologue. We’re continually commenting on ourselves internally: I’m great at that – I’m terrible at that – I used to be good at that, but I’ve lost the knack – I’m terrified of trying new things – I don’t mind making mistakes – I’m a slow learner – I’m the smartest guy in the room – I already know that…. You get the idea. Sadly, this internal commentary can often be dead wrong – and we tend to accept it without question because it’s happening inside our own head, most often beneath our conscious awareness. It’s like subliminal advertising!Be Bad First

So the way to become more self-aware is to recognize and question what you’re saying to yourself about yourself. For example, let’s say your boss tells you that you need to get better at delivering tough news to your employees. Perhaps your first thought is, What? I’m good at that. I may not be as direct as my boss would like, but at least I don’t make my folks feel bad.

Once you notice that you’re saying this to yourself, rather than just accepting it as true, ask yourself, Is that accurate? That has the effect of taking you “off automatic” and causing you to examine your beliefs about yourself more consciously. You might then realize that you don’t really know if your self-talk is accurate. So then you ask yourself, What facts do I have in this area? You might then remember that one person on your team has been consistently missing deadlines, and you’ve been “waiting for the right time to mention it” for months. Or that quite often when you think you’re being clear with employees about changes you want them to make in their behavior, they don’t seem to get the message. Now your self-talk about where you’re starting from in this area might shift to something like, I can see my boss’ point – I don’t seem to be very good at communicating difficult messages in a way that works.

And you notice, in this example, that as your self-talk becomes more accurate, you’re more neutrally self-aware, and better able to understand and accept what you need to learn.

(Many Millennials have a hard time with this because their parents have told them they’re great at everything, so their self-talk about their current strengths and weaknesses in areas of new learning is both woefully inaccurate and somewhat “stuck.” However, this same approach to recognizing and managing their self-talk is equally effective if they buy the core premise of needing to get more neutrally self-aware.)

 

“Accurate self-talk frees the brain to focus on learning.” –Erika Andersen

 

3. Have Endless Curiosity

How to Become An Authentic Leader

Be Authentic

A few months ago, I read Henna Inam’s new book, Wired for Authenticity: Seven Practices to Inspire, Adapt & Lead and subsequently posted an interview with her. Her work on leadership authenticity is not only fascinating, but is essential for any aspiring leader to master. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet Henna and talk more about being an authentic leader.

Throughout all of our discussion and throughout all of Henna’s writing, I noticed a key theme: service to others. Everything we do should be in a place of service. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn to her work.

 

“Authentic leadership is about leading from the core of who we are.” -Henna Inam

 

Here are a few lessons from Henna on becoming an authentic leader:

 

Defeat the Inner Saboteur

7 Practices of Authenticity

Wired for Authenticity

Henna Inam is the CEO of Transformational Leadership Inc. Her new book, Wired for Authenticity: Seven Practices to Inspire, Adapt & Lead, serves as a touchstone for leaders who seek both authenticity and adaptability in a 24/7 dynamic, fast-paced workplace.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Henna about the practices necessary to lead with authenticity.

 

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” -Oscar Wilde

 

Practice 1: Befriend Your Body

Why do you start with the physical? How important is it to connect and befriend our bodies?

Befriending our bodies is foundational to the practice of authenticity. I define authentic leadership as the fullest expression of “me” for the benefit of “we.” In order for us to fully express our true selves, we need to know who we are – to experience what brings us joy, when our fears hold us back from full self-expression, and know what triggers prevent us showing up in our authentic selves. The truth of all of these questions lies in our bodies. In my executive coaching work, I use Whole Body Leadership ™ to get us connected to our bodies to give us answers to these questions. Our bodies can be great enablers because they can help us move in a direction that we know is right by transcending our fears and discomfort through breath, posture, and movement.

 

“Authenticity creates trust in teams.” -Henna Inam

 

Practice 2: Stay Curious

How do we “stay curious”?

Staying curious is critical in a world that is rapidly changing. Our brain likes to operate on assumptions to make the decision-making process easier. We make assumptions about people in the form of quick judgments. We often only see what we believe. Staying curious is about constantly asking ourselves and others broad, open-ended questions such as, “What’s happening now?” or, “What do you see here?” or, “What’s new? What’s changed?” and being open to new learning.

 

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” -Lao Tzu

 

Practice 3: Let Go

Letting go is not always easy. What tips do you offer to let go of what is limiting us?Wired for Authenticity

The first step to letting go of what limits us (often our inner saboteur thoughts and behaviors) is to practice staying curious about ourselves. Once we’ve identified a place we’re stuck, we can ask ourselves, “Who am I being here?” Often it is a certain perspective on a situation or an attitude we are holding that keeps us stuck. It’s often based on assumptions we weren’t even aware of. Once we’ve identified these, we can consciously choose a different perspective, assumptions, or way of being that will get us closer to our goals. Neuroscience shows us how our body can be used to help us change our minds, so moving our body can help us to let go.

 

Practice 4: Give Yourself an A