Ask Questions to Improve Your Leadership

This is a guest post by friend, executive and mentor Bruce Rhoades, who retired after having run several companies. He often helps me with strategy. I am delighted that he is a regular contributor. Follow him on Twitter.

 

Leadership is Not About Knowing All the Answers

Leadership is not about knowing all the answers—it is about leading others to do their best to accomplish goals, solve problems and grow. How many times have you seen a “leader” arrive at the wrong conclusion or take misguided action because they did not know all the facts? How many times have you been frustrated because you were not asked to provide your opinion, perspective or experience?

 


“Leadership is not about knowing all the answers.” -Bruce Rhoades

 

When leaders do not take time to formulate and ask appropriate questions, the whole organization suffers—people do not contribute their best; they do not grow, and the organization often takes sub-optimal or wrong action. Likewise, leaders that do not ask purposeful questions can demoralize the organization, gradually turn associates into non-thinking “yes people” and risk looking foolish or arrogant.

A leader’s effectiveness can be greatly improved by using insightful questions. Here is how.

 


“Leaders who do not ask purposeful questions can demoralize the organization.” -Bruce Rhoades

 

Benefits and Power of Asking Questions

With the proper use and timing, asking questions allows a leader to:

  • Guide the direction of the conversation and focus the discussion
  • Clarify what others have said to improve understanding
  • Improve decisions with better, in-depth information from people who may know more
  • Formulate well-informed decisions with input from other perspectives to better define issues
  • Precipitate a decision by asking for options and exactly what is needed to decide
  • Develop alternative options
  • Raise the level of thinking in the organization, often to broader, more strategic issues
  • Improve organizational collaboration and communication
  • Help move from concepts and discussions to action and defined accountability
  • Help focus on results and outcomes
  • Empower the organization
  • Make people feel valued and improve job satisfaction
  • Solicit input from those who may not typically speak up
  • Improve organizational learning
  • Inspire creativity and new ideas
  • Buy time to think
  • Help overcome wasted authority.
  • Allow confrontation without making statements by inducing people to explain themselves
  • Lead others to conclusions
  • Suspend the business discussion to discover problematic interpersonal issues, attitudes and concerns
  • Improve self-reflection to discern what was learned, mistakes made, missed opportunities to mentor, what to do differently

 


“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.” -Thomas Berger

 

My Most-Used Questions

Each of us can come up with a list of questions to be used in the appropriate circumstance. Here is a list of questions that I have found to be effective and useful:

Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

Master the Coaching Habit

Michael Bungay Stanier is the founder of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do great work. His latest book, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, landed on my desk and intrigued me because coaching is a skill all great leaders must master. I followed up and asked him to share more about his work in this area.

 

“The essence of coaching lies in helping others unlock their potential.” -Michael Bungay Stanier

 

Stay Curious Longer

What is a coaching habit, and why is it essential to good leadership?

You may know Daniel Goleman as the man who popularized the concept of emotional intelligence. He has written widely on the topic of leadership; in his Harvard Business Review article “Leadership That Gets Results,” he notes that there are six styles of leadership, all of them useful at one time or another and all of them with pros and cons.

Coaching is one of those six styles. It is the most powerful style for employee engagement and impact on culture, and it contributes to the bottom line. It is also the least-utilized leadership style. We need to change that.

We don’t want to turn busy managers and leaders into coaches. But we do want them to be more coach-like. What that means, at its heart, is staying curious a little longer, and rushing to advice-giving and action-taking a little more slowly. That’s easy to say —but hard to do—and it’s what we’re tackling in my new book, The Coaching Habit. The coaching part is straightforward: seven essential questions that every busy manager and leader can use. We then help you put those questions into action with the New Habit Formula, a simple but powerful tool to help you change your behavior by building new habits.

 

“Saying Yes more slowly means being willing to stay curious before committing.” -Michael Bungay Stanier

 

Know the Difference Between Being Helpful & Coaching

What’s the difference between being helpful and being a coach?

The Coaching HabitWe all aspire to be helpful. Because you’re reading Skip’s blog, I’m certain you actually care about the people you lead and the difference you and they are making for your organization. You want to encourage great work: work that has more impact, and work that has more meaning.

However, in The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever we show how your good intentions often end up having the opposite effect:

If you have a tendency to jump in, fix things, take things on, rescue people . . . that’s not helpful.

If you, 20 seconds into a conversation, already have the answer and are just waiting for the other person to stop talking . . . that’s not helpful.

If you and your team are great at being tactical and getting everything done, but not that great at being strategic and figuring out the right things to get done . . . that’s not helpful.

If you are so busy helping everyone else that you don’t have the time to do what Cal Newport would call the Deep Work that your own projects require . . . that’s not helpful.

In short, if you recognize any of the three vicious cycles the busy manager faces — an over-dependent team, a sense of being overwhelmed, and a sense of disconnect from the work that matters — it could be that you’re guilty of being “helpful.”

Being more coach-like isn’t the only way to change this, but it certainly is one of the simplest and fastest ways. As I’ve said, at its essence, being more coach-like means staying curious a little longer and rushing to advice and action a little more slowly.

 

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” -Ernest Hemingway

 

Become a Better Listener

What techniques work for those who want to be better listeners?

Almost everyone knows the basics of active listening. The problem is that this has given rise to FAL: fake active listening. That’s when you put your head to the side, nod occasionally, look concerned, and make small “nonverbal” noises of encouragement — all the time while thinking of something else completely.

In The Coaching Habit we offer eight “masterclasses” on how to ask a question well, and the notion of listening well is woven through all of them. I suggest that these are the four best places to start:

  1. Ask one question only. It’s all too easy to end up asking three questions plus a few variations, which only leaves the other person confused.
  2. Start to notice how quickly you want to jump in and share a thought, give an idea, offer up advice. See if you can wait another minute before you actually do.
  3. Go deeper by asking the AWE question (more on that below).
  4. “Listen” and stay curious on all channels. You may be able to listen even harder and ask questions better when you’re emailing and IM-ing. That is, these skills aren’t just in play when you’re talking to someone face to face.

 

Ask the Best Coaching Question in the World

Would you explain for our readers the concept of AWE and how it can transform conversations?

Ah — you’ve picked up on the best coaching question in the world. And what’s perfect is that its acronym is AWE — so it’s literally an awesome question.

AWE is short for “And what else?”

And if this feels a little anticlimactic after the claim that this is the best coaching question in the world, let me explain the two reasons why it is.

To start, AWE supercharges every other question you have. I can promise you that the first answer someone gives you is never their only answer, and it is rarely their best answer. AWE helps mine what is there.

And then, AWE is a powerful self-management tool. You’ve picked up by now that my goal is for you to stay curious a little longer and to rush to advice and action a little more slowly. That’s harder to do than you’d think, because you’ve got a lifetime’s experience of jumping in. “And what else?” is the simplest question to ask to keep you curious. And if you’re asking the question, you’re not giving the answer.

 

Don’t Start With Why

You take on Peter Senge and Simon Sinek, saying to ignore both authors and not start a question with “Why?” I can’t resist: Why?Michael-Bungay-Stanier

Ha! I see what you’re doing here, Skip. Look, questions that begin with “why” can be very powerful, as both Senge and Sinek show. But for most busy managers, Why questions have two particular dangers.

First, you have to get the tone exactly right or your question will come across more as accusatory than simply curious. It can sound like, “Why the heck did you do that?”

Second, why questions are often about getting more details of the story — “Give me the background.” And you want the background information so that you are able to offer some really good advice. But here’s the thing: I want our leaders to be offering up a little less advice. So if you realize that it’s not your job to give advice (or at least, it is much less often than you think) but rather to help people figure things out for themselves, then you’ll also realize that you don’t need to know the details — so you don’t need to ask, “Why?”

 

“To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.” -Sam Keen

 

Be Comfortable With Silence

Silence is not something most of us are comfortable with. I’ve watched people fill in the empty space in every way possible. Why is it important to be comfortable with silence?

It’s true, isn’t it? One, two seconds of silence happen, and then the words rush in to fill the gap. Becoming comfortable with silence is an extremely powerful tool for a couple of reasons.

One, silence allows those who need a little more time to think things through to do just that. Susan Cain in her book Quiet has really helped wave the flag for the needs of the introvert. So follow the advice in the book’s title: be quiet and allow people to think.

And two, silence is a self-management tool. If you can get comfortable with silence, you’ve found a way to stop yourself from rushing in to fix things, solve things, make things better. The other person will fill that space for you.

 

“Silence is often a measure of success.” -Michael Bungay Stanier

 

Saying No is A Leadership Skill

How to Improve Your Communication by Leaps and Bounds

No Cape Needed

Do you know the most common communication mistakes leaders make?

What practical steps can you take right now to be a more effective communicator?

What is the most common mistake we make when using email?

 

“True communication comes from a shared understanding of meaning.” -David Grossman

 

David Grossman is a communications expert. Both David and the firm he founded in 2000, The Grossman Group, have received numerous awards. Prior to founding the firm, he was director of communications for McDonald’s, and he teaches the only graduate course on internal communications in the U.S. at Columbia University.

What you notice when you pick up David’s latest book, No Cape Needed: The Simplest, Smartest, Fastest Steps to Improve How You Communicate by Leaps and Bounds, is that it’s stunning as a physical book. Full of colorful graphics, gorgeous photography, and digestible information, it is one of the reasons I still enjoy the physical book. Not only is it a gorgeous book, but it is full of immediately actionable, useful information. I recently asked David to share some of the wisdom from his book and his consulting practice.

 

“Communication really is a superpower.” -David Grossman

 

Communication is a Superpower

Question: As a kid, you wanted to have superpowers. As an adult you say, “Communication really is a superpower.” Explain why you elevate communication to that status.

I wholeheartedly believe that effective communication is really a way to make a difference.David Grossman

You can use communication to make others feel good about their jobs, to be engaged and excited, to help someone who’s having a hard time get through a rough patch, or to inspire a team. And in essence, you can use communication to make substantial changes that aren’t just about helping a company or team go from ‘good to great’ but instead create a lasting legacy through a new strategic direction.

A lot of people don’t think they can communicate well or don’t think they can develop the skill. But the truth is that it just takes practice. If leaders at all levels of their organizations come to realize that, then great things can happen for their companies. And they can become heroes of their own.

 

Cut-Through-Clutter-No-Cape-Needed-David-Grossman

3 Steps to Improve Your Communication

In your new book, No Cape Needed, what are the top three steps you recommend for improving communication?  

1. Understand your audience.

To truly move employees to action, we have to know what they care about and get into their mindset. As leaders we spend much of our time and effort setting business goals and developing plans to achieve them. Yet the most important element behind everything is your team. If they don’t understand where they fit in, all of our lofty goals will go nowhere.

2. Plan, and then communicate regularly.

Leaders often mistakenly assume that as long as they have ideas, a vision, and a sense of purpose, that will be enough to lead the way forward. If only it were that easy. In truth, good leaders know the importance of planning and clearly spelling out the path ahead. You can wing your communications and take a chance on the results or be planful and purposeful to increase your chances of success ten-fold.

3. Listen and create dialogue.

True communication comes from a shared understanding of meaning. Ask open-ended questions. Listen. Listen some more. Check for understanding.

 

“Leaders become great not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.” -John Maxwell

 

3 Common Communication Mistakes

What are some of the common mistakes leaders make when they communicate?

1. They don’t set the context. 

29 Ways to Celebrate World Hello Day

World Hello Day

 

Hallo. Ciao! Hallo. Ni hao! Hola. Marhaba! Shalom. Bonjour!

Friday, November 21 is World Hello Day.

What are you supposed to do on World Hello Day? Greet 10 people. That’s it.

 

“For every goodbye, God also provides a hello.” –Donna Gable Hatch

 

The idea is to encourage the resolution of conflicts through communication instead of force. Sure, we can all point to examples where this is not possible. We may call it idealistic. Still, I like having a day where we can celebrate the power of communication. It’s easy to cite the examples where it is difficult, but there are far more conflicts resolved through negotiation than any other method.

 

“Don’t tell your friends about your indigestion. ‘How are you’ is a greeting, not a question.” –Arthur Guiterman

 

Let’s celebrate that today by sharing World Hello Day with others.

 

29 Ways to Celebrate

Here are a few suggestions on how to make World Hello Day worthwhile:

Greet others enthusiastically today.

 

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” -Jimi Hendrix

 

Introduce yourself to strangers and tell them about World Hello Day.

Share this post with someone you haven’t said hello to in a while.

Let someone cut in front of you in line.

 

“Send out a cheerful, positive greeting, and most of the time you will get back a cheerful, positive greeting.” –Zig Ziglar

 

Make today a day of happiness.

Spend some extra time with a good friend.

Have your team at work write down five things that you are grateful for.

Encourage someone.

Radiate peace and joy.

Make today the day that you forgive someone for good.

 

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” -Gandhi

 

Allow a driver into your lane.

 

“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!” –John Muir

 

Send Facebook messages or Tweets to 3 people who you admire.

Compliment others sincerely today.

Better Communication, Not Just More Communication

Counterintuitive Advice

  • Want better communication?  Stop talking.
  • Think technology will help?  Expect less from technology and more from people.
  • Want to go forward?  Start by backing up.
  • Think being yourself is the answer?  Think again—it’s an excuse for Neanderthal behavior.
  • Ever been told that asking questions helps?  Questions actually make many conversations worse.
  • Want to meet aggression with force?  Bring a stick to a knife fight instead.

Geoffrey Tumlin makes all of these counterintuitive suggestions—and more—in his new book Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life. Suggestions like this pull me in and force my brain into arguments with my assumptions. Studying great communicators is something I have done my whole life because I’m always interested in better ways to connect, to understand, and to listen. Geoffrey’s book doesn’t disappoint. It’s filled with practical advice to improve our communication in the digital age.

Geoffrey Tumlin is a communication expert and an organizational consultant. He’s the founder and CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting, a communication consulting firm, and the president of On-Demand Leadership, an organizational development company. He’s a West Point graduate who also holds a PhD in communication from the University of Texas at Austin.

GT_Torch_TU

 

Good communication = Good Relationships = Good Life

Geoff, your book Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life is packed with advice from beginning to end. As you point out, good communication = good relationships = good life, so improving our communication helps us in all aspects of our lives. How has communication in the digital age challenged us and changed the game?

 

The fastest way to improve your communication is to stop talking. –Geoffrey Tumlin

 

The digital communication revolution of the last two decades has given us more ways than ever to connect with each other. The paradox is that these new capabilities have combined with our innate love of communicating and have led to hypercommunication: our inboxes overflow, our phones incessantly vibrate with text messages, and it’s difficult to keep up with the ceaseless conversations on social media. To cope with our increased communication loads, we’re sending more messages than ever, but we’re spending less time on each message. Our hypercommunicating environment doesn’t lead to productive and meaningful connections; it leads to rushed, distracted, and error-prone interactions. The ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time should have ushered in the golden age of communication. Unfortunately, it has all too often scattered our attention, strained our relationships, and degraded our interactions. Our challenge is to turn that around so that the most powerful communication devices in human history don’t come between us; they bring us closer together instead.

 

3 Guiding Communication Habits In the Digital Age

Let’s focus on the three guiding habits you say are critical in the digital age. Tell us more about each one of these habits and how to put them into practice.

It’s important to remember that these are guiding habits, not rigid orders. If you adopt these three behaviors, and if you incorporate them into your interactions, your communication will steadily improve. These three guiding habits will be like a tide that rises to lift all of your relationships.

 

Listen like every sentence matters; talk like every word counts. –Geoffrey Tumlin

 

1. Listen like every sentence matters.