Want Better Results? Ask Better Questions

Most organizations today have technology solutions available to systematize every process they can think of.

We automate everything from calendars to surveys, all in the promise of making things better. And yet we still have gaps in our systems. Big gaps. How is this possible?

There is an unintended consequence of automating some systems. In our attempt to design a process to make everything more efficient, we lose the leadership skill of active listening.

An Exercise in Listening

As Irish Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

As an Executive Coach, one of the exercises I’ve enjoyed facilitating in workshops with leaders and teams involves developing the skill of active listening.

In the exercise, participants are told to listen to simple instructions from the presenter and to draw exactly what they hear. But by the end of the exercise, the group typically ends up with several different variations, each drawn from the directions everyone heard from the same presenter at the same time.

The facilitator then allows everyone to compare drawings and encourages the group to start asking clarifying questions.

As the room starts exchanging more information, the group slowly comes to a more common agreement about the task at hand. Next, the facilitator asks them all to take one more shot at drawing what they hear but applying all of the new information.

Guess what happens? Most — if not all — of the group participants draw the same thing this time. The reason is simple: once the participants had the opportunity to ask better questions, they could complete the task with better alignment, both with the facilitator and with their peers.

The key ingredient to this shift in productivity was the presence of active listening.

Active Listening Builds Trust

In most organizations, employees can only follow a good process when they have a culture of trust on their team and in the company. Trust allows a leader to consistently deliver what is expected, and to get team members to affirm what is heard, what is understood and what is acknowledged.

Without trust in a leader, there is often confusion, if not chaos, in the company culture.

So why don’t more leaders embrace active listening?

By default, most leaders tend to listen competitively or passively. Active listening is more than just focusing on what you hear; it involves observing the speaker’s body language, energy level, pace, and even tone.

The use of clarifying questions helps the listener get to the heart of what the person speaking is trying to communicate. And this is when leaders can really make the shift with their teams — by asking better questions.

The Bottom Line

Leading your teams to develop a system or follow a process will be far easier for a leader who can create an atmosphere where active listening is encouraged and modeled.

When active listening is present in a team environment, teammates will have more opportunities to build trust with one another.

Active listening also allows leaders to establish empathy with their teams. Once those fundamentals exist, teams can follow a process with less confusion.


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