Everybody wants to go to heaven…

As a mentor, I get a lot of “How can I…” questions come my way.

  • How can I understand what my boss wants me to do?
  • How can I understand where I need to develop?
  • How can I get people to realise that there is a better way of doing things?

In general, when people come asking these questions they’re looking for a strategy or a script, a Jedi mind trick that they can use to get to where they want to go, but instead I ask them:

How can you prioritise your work if you don’t know how it fits in strategically, or if you don’t know the deadline?

How can you have a development conversation with your boss if you won’t ask where your weaknesses are, or what you could do better?

How can you get someone to change the way they do something, if you don’t understand why they do it their way in the first place?

In short, it’s not them, it’s you.

Stephen R. Covey in the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Jordan Peterson in his 12 Rules for Life put it another way, he said, “Assume the person you’re speaking to might know something you don’t.”

So if you want to move things forward, you need to check your ego, ask some questions, and listen to the answers.

That last part is where most people get lost.

You Have to Want to Know the Answer

A genuine question is one that we ask because we actually want to know the answer; we want to listen to it, absorb it, and respond to it.

To be clear, this is not all questions.

Typically, we ask questions for other reasons:

  • We want to manoeuvre the conversation towards an outcome that we desire.
  • We want to prove a point or push an agenda, so we’re exploring another person’s thinking looking for a “weak spot”.
  • We want to prove our confirmation bias correct, so we ask questions that will enable that.

Think about the question shown above, about getting people to realise there is a better way of doing something, already you have an agenda, already you have something that you want to show, to prove.

So, when you ask the person who does the job why they’re not doing it a better way, are you going to actually listen to their answer to understand what they’re saying? Or are you going to listen to their answer so that you can find the conversational hook to hang your brilliant new idea from?

We don’t ask questions to actually find out the answers because we think that we should already have all the answers, and to show that we don’t is a weakness. Or worse, we don’t ask questions because we believe we genuinely do have all the answers.

Asking questions without an agenda to find out the answer, and then actually responding to that answer directly, or better yet, taking it away and thinking about it, is very rare.

People Can Tell

Humans are remarkable creatures, we have deep, in built social instincts; we can sense social cues on a subconscious level. We can recognise when someone is genuinely looking to understand something as compared to when someone is simply waiting for their chance to speak.

We can all do it, including the people that you interact with.

Your team, your manager, your spouse, your children; they can all see what you’re doing when you ask a question simply to drive the conversation in the direction you want it to go. They can tell.

So, how do you think they’re going to answer?

Are they likely to give you an honest, straight, complete answer? Or are they likely to hold something back, something in reserve.

Are you going to gain a more complete understanding of the issue at hand, and have a value added, enlightened conversation that elevates both of you? Or are you going to conversationally circle each other, each one trying to figure out what it is that the other isn’t saying?

On the other hand, people can tell if you’re asking a question to actually understand the answer, and they’re likely to give you a more complete, more open response.

They’re also more likely to listen to what you have to say when you get around to saying it. If your proposal has been tempered by what you have heard from them, they are more likely to listen to it, they are more likely to develop it with you. Further, they are more likely to take some kind of ownership of whatever comes out of the discussion.

Try Not Knowing for Once

I’ve written previously about The Joy Of “I Don’t Know”; and asking genuine questions is the pinnacle of practicing the act of not knowing (or not pretending to know) the answer to everything.

Leaders who admit that they don’t have all the answers have more engaged, more energised teams who take greater ownership of the issues that they are an integral part of solving. Asking genuine questions and moderating your responses based on the answers is a tacit admission of not knowing.

Genuine questions build trust and compassion, they build empathy and connection, these are core qualities that allow leaders to get things done in matrix organisations, they are also all the more important now that we are working in hybrid settings.

So try it, ask a question, and then, instead of just waiting for your turn to speak, listen to the answer, you might learn something.

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