Today’s audio is 29:12 minutes long.
Questions > Dialogue > Progress
How will we know where we are?
How will we know if we’re making progress?
What will success look like?
Can we measure the results?
These are all great questions. Great questions spark great dialogue. Out of great dialogue often come great answers or solutions or ideas that lead toward solutions!
Leaders who ask great questions, at the appropriate time…and foster dialogue with the right people can elicit innovation, progress and improvement. It’s not an innate skill although some innate traits can lead to higher execution of the process. Great leaders learn how to accomplish these things either by trial and error or by having capable mentors.
But before I dive into these 3 components of leadership there’s one foundational skill required – LISTENING. Better said, ACTIVE LISTENING.
Active vs. Passive Listening
I’m a pretty simple guy so I don’t lean toward complexity. Fact is, I shy away from it and aim toward ways to break it down into simpler, easier to understand segments. So, permit me to do that here.
Passive listening is pretty much what most of us do most of the time. Unless we’re hearing impaired, we hear what people say. The words enter our ears and we discern what’s being said. We may or may not fully understand what’s being said for one of two reasons: a) the talker isn’t being very clear or b) we aren’t familiar with the vocabulary.
Passive listening is characterized by us listening with “one ear.” That just means we’re only partially listening. The sound enters both ears, but we’re paying so little attention we miss the import of what’s being said. Sometimes we may ask the person to repeat it feigning that we really want to catch it (which is partially true – because we simply didn’t hear it the first time).
Active listening is engaged listening. We’re not distracted. We’re paying close attention.
Active listening involves more than listening though. Active listening is watching facial expressions and body language. It’s watching other participants as the conversation moves about the room. It’s picking up on verbal cues and intonations.
Active listening is observant. Passive listening is communication failure. If you’re not going to be an active listener, you may as well not be involved in the conversation. Passive listening is worse than absence because it’s physical presence, but absence of attention.
Relationships are destroyed by passive listening. At work. At home. Anywhere.
So permit me to urge you – encourage you – persuade you – compel you – to devote yourself to active listening. It’s going to take practice. And it’s going to demand consistency. You won’t be able to pick and choose when you’ll be active and when you’ll be passive. If you take that approach, you’ll be unable to fully develop your active listening skills.
WARNING: This means electronic distractions have to be eliminated as much as possible. I know it’s not always possible to avoid our iPhones or iPads altogether, but as much as you can, do it. Can you blast out a text message prior to joining an important conversation? “For the next 20 minutes I’m in a conversation where I can only be interrupted by emergencies by texting me 911.” If a text arrives without a 911, then at a glance you know you can ignore it. Otherwise, put your device in “airplane” mode and don’t turn it back on until your conversation is over.
Have you ever walked into a store, been at the counter prepared to pay for a purchase and their phone rang. I don’t mean their cell phone. I mean their company phone. And the clerk ANSWERED THE PHONE while ignoring you?
How did that make you feel?
I’m FAN-AT-I-CAL about customer service. I don’t mean I’m bent toward customer service. I mean, I won’t put up with poor service. Or indifferent service. Or complacent service. I won’t make a scene, but I’ll find a way to express displeasure and if possible, I’ll find a leader responsible for correction. So armed with that knowledge I’ll tell you how the above scenario hits me.
“I’m right here. I drove here to make this purchase. You need to focus on the customer who is going to BUY something, not the person who is calling on the phone.”
Yes, I know phones need to be answered, but in the priority that is “doing business,” the company needs to have somebody else who can answer the phone. Don’t spurn me when I’m standing right in front of you with my wallet open.
Do you feel like that if it happens to you?
Then how do you suppose people feel who are talking to you and you’re checking your phone, or you’re on your iPad (and I don’t mean taking notes)? That’s right. They feel slighted just like the person trying to make a purchase. They feel like they don’t matter as much as the people on your phone or your electronic device. And they’re completely right. They don’t matter as much.
So, if you’re going to do that I want you to enter those conversations by saying the following:
I just want everybody to know that during our conversation I’ll be checking my phone and electronic devices because those communications might be more important than anything you’re saying. I just can’t risk missing out on something more important than you.”
You think that’s rude? Maybe. But at least it’s honest. More honest than what you’re doing when you’re constantly checking your phone.
The world is filled with passive listeners just like the world is filled with average people, average leaders and average results. Remain average if you must, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to be remarkable. We’re here to be extraordinary. That means we’re going to abandon the habit of passive listening and start being active listeners 100% of the time. Will you be perfect? No, but you need to aim for the ideal.
Okay, with that sermon ringing in your ears let’s talk about QDP (questions, dialogue, progress).
Questions. Can you ask better questions? Sure, that’s almost always possible. Unfortunately, we don’t often put in the required work. Constructing great questions demands forethought.
We like to fly by the seat of our pants and blurt out questions as we think of them. Go back to listening. So often we fail to ask great questions because we can’t keep our mouth shut and hear what others are saying. Sometimes we fail because we didn’t prepare at all for the conversation. We entered it cold, not even knowing what was going to be discussed.
Have you ever seen a person who asked lots of questions in a meeting – and those questions were mostly aimed at making them appear engaged or smart instead of trying to make progress? Mark it down, it’s a person who knew they weren’t bringing much profit to the discussion. Don’t be that guy! Prepare.
Preparation doesn’t mean study. Sometimes we have dialogue that erupts in a moment. Nobody prepares in the traditional sense. When I say prepare I don’t necessarily mean study, I mean being prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue. That includes, but isn’t limited to:
- Eliminating other distractions so you can practice active listening
- Having a working knowledge of the discussion points (why else be in the conversation?)
- A willingness to get the necessary facts (remember what we said about having 70% of the information)
- Patience to let the dialogue unfold (as much as is reasonable)
- Discipline to help keep the dialogue on point and moving forward toward progress
These are all elements of what I call “preparation.” Lack any of these and you kill effective communication.
What questions can you ask to get to the point, refine the point or clarify the problem more fully?
I’ll give you an example from my days as CEO of a luxury retailer in Dallas. Our clients were residents of one of the top 5 richest zip codes in all of Texas based on income. We regularly made deliveries to multi-million dollar homes to very demanding clients.
My delivery manager began to encounter a problem when I had implemented a fast 4-hour delivery. It seems our delivery crews were often arriving at a client’s house unaware of some particular delivery challenges. For instance, on one winter day the delivery team was attempting to deliver and install a large Sub-Zero refrigerator. The only way into the home was through the front door up about 60 concrete steps with about a 30 degree grade. And there was ice. Well, the delivery teams consisted to two men, a lead driver and a helper, but there’s no way 2 guys (unless one of them was the Incredible Hulk) were going to successfully make this delivery. The manager dispatched another team to the customer’s home, delaying the delivery an extra 20 minutes and throwing that teams deliveries off schedule.
Well, this evidently had been happening for a week or more by the time news arrived to my office. The delivery manager told me of conversations he’d been having with the store manager and how together they were really trying to solve it, but neither of them felt they were making progress. So I made a trip to the store to visit the sales team.
In an impromptu standup meeting in a quiet place in the store, away from customers, I gathered a few salespeople and asked them about this problem. I simply said, “Tell me what you guys think the problem is.” They began to tell me what their conversations were like with their customers. One by one they chimed in while I listened. It was the usual storytelling that goes in such conversations. Finally, I asked them, “Tell what questions you’re asking the customers when you get delivery instructions.” We would commonly find out if we had to enter through a front, side or rear door. We’d find out if there was a housekeeper or person in charge that we’d need to contact and other finer points like that.
I ask them, “Is there any abnormal about delivery to your house?” said one of the salespeople. The rest of them chimed in confirming that they did the same thing. They thought they were really asking the right questions. But I knew they weren’t. I knew the problems our delivery teams were facing in the field. I knew the frustrations of the delivery manager, the store manager, the delivery teams and most importantly, the customers!
So I asked them, “Do you think there’s a better question you can ask? I mean, who wants to admit that anything about their situation is ABNORMAL. And what does ABNORMAL mean anyway? To the customer who has 60 steps in front of their house at a 30 degree grade, that’s normal for them. But that presents serious challenges to us when we’re delivering a product as heavy and bulky as a Sub-Zero…not to mention the potential risk to our guys, the product and the client’s property.”
They stared at me thinking. It was clear that with the boss engaging them in this situation they just couldn’t think of anything better to ask. So, I knew it was now a teaching moment. It began as a discovery, to gain clarification of what was going wrong. Now, I felt I knew what was wrong so I needed to give them a solution.
I said, “Instead of asking them, ‘Is there anything abnormal about your delivery?’ how about you ask them to describe how we’ll need to enter their home to make the delivery?”
“That way, they’ll give you details and you’ll be able to drill down to get even more details. For instance, in the case of our 60 step client, the customer might say, “You’ll have to come in through the front door and we’ve got quite a few steps from the street.” That should spark a new question, “Describe those steps? How steep are they? About how many would you say there are?” All great questions that can help us deliver great service!
Immediately, the problem was solved. Both the problem and the solution were the result of questions. The problem stemmed from asking poor questions. The solution was born from asking better questions.
And thus was born a philosophy that I incorporated into my professional leadership from that moment on.
The quality of our questions determines the quality of our business.
I’ve not yet found an organization where that mantra doesn’t apply. Non-profits, service businesses, product businesses…it doesn’t matter. If leaders can ask better questions things can be improved, problems can be solved and ideas can be generated.
Dialogue. Sometimes questions are asked for affect. Sometimes they’re asked even when we know the answer. However, we’re speaking of problem solving, improvement and innovation. That means we need dialogue. We’re not using questions like a trial attorney might. We’re truly trying to discover something or generate ideas and innovation. Our mission isn’t to look like the smartest person in the room, or make sure people know who’s boss. No, our mission to get to the crux of a matter so we can move forward.
Just here I need to interject some thoughts about FAILURE. Dialogue is often stifled because of fear. People can be intimidated to engage – fully engage – in meaningful dialogue because there’s not enough security in the conversation. Usually an organization’s culture for mistakes or failure permeates throughout all the activities within that organization – this includes the dialogue that goes on. If you’re in a culture where mistakes and failures are magnified and celebrated, but successes are taken for granted, then you’ve got big problems in today’s competitive world. Here’s a Forbes’ article about allowing employees to make mistakes. You can find hoards of similar writing expressing the same idea.
I’m reminded of the story of an employee what made an expensive mistake, but the boss said he was now far too valuable to fire. The boss knew the employee had learned a lesson so valuable that the company could ill afford to part with him. That’s a boss who gets it. And I venture to suppose that the employee grew to become a spectacular contributor, too.
When we’re engaging in meaningful dialogue (as opposed to casual social conversation – which has its place), we need to hear from people who have the most to contribute. Often that’s the people in the trenches. They may be the folks the least likely to be comfortable in such a conversation. Don’t turn it into a 3rd degree interrogation. Pepper them with questions and you’ll get people who learn to be as quiet as possible. Or, they grow defensive. You won’t make the progress you should.
You need to hear from the people most valuable to the conversation. That doesn’t mean others aren’t included, but it does mean you have to make sure the most valuable people are contributing most. I could have included my accounting staff with my delivery problem. I could have included the merchandising group, too. But that’s not where the problem was originating. It was originating at the point of sale. I knew that because of what the delivery manager said and what our sales paperwork didn’t say. So I went to the people who could tell me what I needed to know, the people with the answers. Our sales team.
Progress. This is not singular. Progress can be as varied as the topic.
Maybe progress is simply identifying more fully the problem at hand. Maybe it’s fostering an atmosphere for brain-storming.
Progress can be solving the problem right here, right now or it may mean just making a single step toward resolution.
You have to define progress. In my delivery example, progress was defined as fixing the problem so our delivery teams would stop being blind-sided by delivery situations they didn’t plan for.
You need to be able to identify and quantify the progress. Everybody in the conversation needs to know what that standard is. You don’t want people to leave wondering, “What was that all about?”
Oh, you’ve been in conversations like that? Sure, we all have. Not only are they a waste of time, but they create tension and unnecessary curiosity. They serve to distract the work. Where’s the value in that?
Here are some thoughts to help spark even more ideas:
- Know WHY you’re asking the questions, having the dialogue and trying to make progress
- Put your existing questions on trial for their life (don’t keep asking the same questions if you’re not experiencing new problems)
- Pose questions that have a completely different perspective
- When asking “What if?” questions, demand people answer them
- Watch people (don’t just hear what they say, listen to how they say it and how they look saying it)
- Clarify the discussion so everybody knows exactly WHY and WHAT
- Provide a safe environment for sharing ideas, thoughts and possible solutions
- HINT: You don’t have to shoot down or destroy bad ideas. Just thank people for keeping the conversation moving forward and solicit more discussion. Why bosses feel the need to shoot down an idea is beyond me, but it’s commonplace. Or, bosses sometimes feel the need to enlighten somebody on why their idea will never work. That doesn’t profit anything. If you do that, stop it because by doing that you may just stifle the person who clams up, but as a terrific idea (too scared to tell you because they saw you shoot down the previous guy). Instead, LEAD.
- If the dialogue results in (or is intended to result in) a solution, make sure everybody buys into the result as PROGRESS or improvement
Think. Pre-think. Post-think.
Do these things and you’ll enjoy more profitable, more meaningful and more efficient conversation that will move your organization forward — faster!