If a meeting or interaction isn’t going well, a great technique to use to help shift the dynamic away from conflict and toward learning is to pose open-ended questions.
- Open-ended questions are how you engage your players by talking with them rather than at them.
Edgar H. Schein, Professor of Management Emeritus at the MIT Sloan School of Management, explains that asking is:
“…such an important skill [because] genuine curiosity and interest minimizes the likelihood of misperceptions, bad judgment, and hence, inappropriate behavior…we have to avoid operating on incorrect data as much as we can. Checking things out by asking in a humble manner then becomes a core activity in relationship building.”
Think back to what you learned in Lesson 1 about a more open way of listening. Skill in the art of “talking with” people rather than “talking at” them is part of how leaders create conditions for people to do their best work.
The following are examples of open-ended questions you can use in a wide range of common scenarios.
- “I want to make sure we are on the same page. Can you let me know what’s standing out for you so far?”
- “I think this is an important point. What’s key in your opinion about the project?”
- “I’ve shared a few concerns. What leaps out for you?”
- “I want to spend a little extra time on the execution plan here; in my experience this is the place that so many projects get turned around. What are you seeing as the next steps?”
Approaching your colleagues with a spirit of genuine interest and curiosity — which is demonstrated when you ask them open-ended questions — can engender deeper engagement. This tends to diminish the concerns that give rise to the telltale signs of disengagement that you learned about earlier in this lesson.
Keep the following principles in mind as you experiment with open-ended questions:
- A goal in working with open-ended questions is to cultivate a culture of listening rather than arguing. This means that you will want to notice when conversation has moved into rapid-fire volley and interrupting and consider using an open-ended question to reset.
- The spirit of asking rather than telling is oriented around inclusion, which translates into allowing for a period of gathering points of view rather than trying to eliminate them right away. Sometimes this means you need to allow more time for this to take place, which can mean a longer runway on your projects. Accommodating this requires advance planning.
- To foster the kind of openness that typifies a learning organization, you need to work hard to get more ideas on the table. One way to do this is by assigning someone to play the devil’s advocate for the day and asking them to say all the things no one else is comfortable giving voice to. In order to reduce any feeling of personal risk, make sure to suggest that people announce when they are wearing the devil’s advocate hat as they offer a perspective that feels risky.
- As you evaluate a proposal, spend equal time focusing on what needs to go right rather than focusing only on what could go wrong.
“The reason asking is a strength rather than a weakness is that it provides a better chance of figuring out what is actually going on before acting.”
— Edgar H. Schein
- Openness that can be trusted comes with you being open to the possibility that you may not have the full picture.
Of course, there is a time and a place for eliminating ideas and honing in on the one, best idea that the group will pursue. Recall from Lesson 6 what you learned about the types of conversation common in business. As a reminder, Conversations for Possibility expand upon possibilities and options, while Conversations for Action are used to narrow possibilities, make decisions, and execute; both are required in business.