How well do you listen and ask open questions? Most members of my Peer Advisory Groups find it very difficult.
Listening has two parts: the receptive part of empathic listening and the talking part where you ask a question. When done right, listening and asking open questions work together and create an environment of trust where the most difficult and beneficial conversations occur. “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” said David Augsburger. Current research has found that companies that have an environment of trust and safety are more profitable and successful.
“..the secret to buy-in is not what you tell them, it is what they tell you.” Mark Goulston, Author of “Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone”
Over this three part blog, I will share my recipe for asking open questions. My definition of an open question is different than most. An open question has no implied solution, action or recommendation and it is delivered nuetrally with no “emotional load”. The first part is the easiest. It is the wording of the question. The second part is the more difficult.
Can you remember a time when you were a teenager and came home late? Your parents met you at the door and asked ” Where were you?!”. Although there was no implied action in the question, it was definitely not delivered neutrally. It came with accusations, anger and worry. Did you want to open up and share or get out as quickly as you could?
It’s the same with your employees. Their antennae are finely tuned to detect any hint of negative emotion in your tone of voice or manner. It’s not easy, but in order to cultivate a culture of trust and openness, you must exude a sense of caring and curiosity and then learn how to ask questions without any emotional load.
Ingredient One: Show up with the intent to understand.
Before each meeting, take a few minutes to calm yourself and resolve to learn from and understand your employee. Elminate all goals of a specific outcome and be open to whatever happens. Stephen Covey says masterfully, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
If you want to interact effectively with me, to influence me—your spouse, your child, your neighbor, your boss, your coworker, your friend—you first need to understand me. And you can’t do that with technique alone. If I sense you’re using some technique, I sense duplicity, manipulation. I wonder why you’re doing it, what your motives are. And I don’t feel safe enough to open myself up to you. The real key to your influence with me is your example, your actual conduct. Your example flows naturally out of your character, or the kind of person you truly are—not what others say you are or what you may want me to think you are. It is evident in how I actually experience you. Your character is constantly radiating, communicating. From it, in the long run, I come to instinctively trust or distrust you and your efforts with me.
If your life runs hot and cold, if you’re both caustic and kind, and, above all, if your private performance doesn’t square with your public performance, it’s very hard for me to open up with you. Then, as much as I may want and even need to receive your love and influence, I don’t feel safe enough to expose my opinions and experiences and my tender feelings. Who knows what will happen? But unless I open up with you, unless you understand me and my unique situation and feelings, you won’t know how to advise or counsel me. What you say is good and fine, but it doesn’t quite pertain to me. You may say you care about and appreciate me. I desperately want to believe that. But how can you appreciate me when you don’t even understand me? All I have are your words, and I can’t trust words. I’m too angry and defensive—perhaps too guilty and afraid—to be influenced, even though inside I know I need what you could tell me. Unless you’re influenced by my uniqueness, I’m not going to be influenced by your advice. So if you want to be really effective in the habit of interpersonal communication, you cannot do it with technique alone. You have to build the skills of empathic listening on a base of character that inspires openness and trust. And you have to build the Emotional Bank Accounts that create a commerce between hearts.
“Seek first to understand” involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives. It means looking through the other’s frame of reference and suspend your own.
How do you show up when you are the listener? McKinsey published (you must register to read this article) “The Executive’s Guide to Better Listening”. Embedded in that article was a descriptor of bad listeners. Take a few minutes to read this and select the profile that best describes you.
In your next meeting, become aware of your listening profile. Imagine receiving your questions. What implications do the tone of your voice send? As you catch yourself using an undesirable tone of voice, simply state, ” That’s not what I mean. Let me try again.” and ask your question again.