By Rebecca Teasdale
Recently, a colleague and I were at a function with a group of leaders from another organization. We found ourselves seated at a table with a new member of the executive team who we were meeting for the first time. We eased into a conversation with small talk about sports and weather. Then we went deeper, inquiring about his family, his career, and his thoughts on the profession.
Some 45 minutes later, my colleague and I had learned a lot about the new member. Yet, we realized he had learned nothing about us. In those 45 minutes of conversation, he hadn’t asked either of us a single question.
Sadly, this common style of relating has reached alarming levels. Social interactions no longer seem to be two-way interactions. Whether with friends, colleagues, new acquaintances and even family members, the common courtesies of asking questions and listening have given way to an urgent need to speak and be heard.
In my work as an executive coach, I try to talk no more than 30 percent of the time, giving other people the majority of airtime. By giving people that time, I’m able to understand their challenges, relate to their needs, and extend the empathy they might want and need. For me, listening is how l learn. For other people, it can be a way of showing that the person they are speaking with has value.
A Harvard University study zeroed in on the scale of this problem: People spend most of their time during conversations talking about their own viewpoints and tend to self-promote when meeting people for the first time. In contrast, high question-askers—those that probe for information from others—are perceived as more responsive and are better liked.
Being liked is not the main goal of conversation, of course, but it can be the starting point for healthy relationships. The people in our lives want to feel valued and validated. And asking people questions does this and more. In my work with leaders and teams, I’ve learned that asking genuine questions and listening to what people are saying can have these benefits:
- Improved engagement by showing we value the views of others.
- Improved quality of decisions by understanding multiple perspectives on an issue.
- Improved collaboration and buy-in by inviting dissenting views that may otherwise go unheard.
- Increased influence by involving others in decisions and direction setting.
- Stronger workplace relationships leading us to want to invest in the success of others.
The job of the leader is to ensure that bad news surfaces fast. The sooner the toughest issues get raised, the sooner they get fixed. Yet many leaders I observe put more energy into telling and convincing than into listening and learning. Leaders are often mistakenly viewed as the experts who have all the answers. At higher levels, the worse it seems to get. Many of the chief executive officers I work with are shielded from the real issues. They have failed to create a culture of openness and candor, which must start with their own curiosity and interest in others—with their willingness to ask and listen.
These same leaders might seek counsel from their coaches and mentors, asking “How do I develop better relationships with people in my organization? How can we increase employee engagement? How can I show people they are really valued? How can we create a culture of learning and innovation?”
Fortunately, there’s a simple approach that doesn’t require a big budget. Here are four ways to get started:
- In your meetings, observe what’s going on. How much are people talking and positioning versus asking, listening, and learning? What is your own tendency?
- Try not to talk first. Force yourself to let others go first. Don’t jump in too quickly to fill the silence.
- Make a habit of asking questions that increase learning: Tell me more about your recommendation. What am I missing? What are we not thinking of? What are some other ways we can approach this challenge? What’s our real purpose in this?
- Go deep by asking followup questions. Model showing curiosity about others’ views.
As a leader, you are well served to ask the right questions versus always having the right answers. Try it for a couple of weeks and see what happens.
Rebecca Teasdale is cofounder of The Trispective Group, Boulder, Colorado, and coauthor of The Loyalist Team: How Trust, Candor, and Authenticity Create Great Organizations (www.trispectivegroup.com).