vendredi 15 décembre 2006

answers, you want answers

asking questions is to get answers. Leaders
ask questions to gather information, understand motivations,
and uncover problems. Questions asked and answered in the
workplace can uncover emotions, discover new approaches,
and increase efficiency. All these desirable outcomes assume
one thing—someone actually got answers to the questions
they asked. You see, asking a question doesn’t guarantee an
answer. Life doesn’t unfold like a TV courtroom drama. You
remember the scene. The lawyer asks the guilty party a
tough question. There’s a pause—a long pause. The lawyer
looks at the judge; the judge bangs the gavel and sternly says to the
witness, “You are instructed to answer the question.” The witness,
properly admonished, takes a deep breath and confesses all. That’s
the fictionalized version of how questions work.
In the real world, there is no judge to compel an answer. Getting
good answers to questions is left to the skill of the questioner. There
are five behaviors you need to master to increase the quality and
quantity of the answers you receive.
1. Ask one question at a time. Inexperienced questioners
often fall into the trap of asking a flurry of questions all at
once. Usually this happens because the questioner hasn’t
thought through the question they want to ask. Listen in.
“Sarah, I was wondering what issues customers have been
raising lately? I mean, why is a call is escalated to you? Is
that new policy we instituted last week really having a neg-
ative effect?”
Poor Sarah. Which question is she supposed to answer?
Bombardment happens because the questioner opened
their mouth before they engaged their brain. A moment’s
reflection would have helped Sarah’s leader realize that
what they really wanted to know was the effect of the new
policy. “Sarah, what customer reactions have you seen
regarding the new policy we instituted last week?” This is
a straightforward, unbiased question that Sarah could feel
comfortable answering.
2. Pause at the end of a question. Make it long enough for
the answerer to think, formulate, and deliver their answer.
Silence is often overlooked as a leadership tool; when it
comes to asking questions, developing the skill of keeping
your mouth shut is essential. Successful sales people have
known the value of silence for years: The first person who
speaks after the question is asked—loses. In the context of
leaders asking questions, losing means the leader doesn’t
get an answer, doesn’t get a good answer, or doesn’t get
the real answer.
Staying silent after asking a question involves more than just
not talking. It means keeping eye contact, staying still, and
feeling comfortable while you wait. (Okay, be honest. You’re
currently impatient, scanning the rest of the page, looking
for the number that will indicate exactly how long you have
to wait, right? Silence, even implied on the printed page, can
make a leader nervous.) This very desirable behavior takes
practice. Most people believe that they pause a sufficient
length of time after they ask a question, but observation
belies that. Pauses of two to three seconds are long if you’ve
asked the question and fleeting if you’re preparing an
answer. Monitor both your own pauses after a question and
your comfort with silence in any situation. Work your way
up to at least a ten-second pause after a question and watch
he quality of the answers you receive improve greatly.
3. Learn about listening. Not long ago, a participant walked
into a session I was teaching on listening skills and asked if
I would write his wife a note certifying he had passed the
class. It seemed she had reviewed the conference brochure,
noticed this class, and strongly suggested he attend. I
replied that I would be happy to write her a note indicating
he had attended the class, but proving that he had learned
something was up to him. Most of us haven’t ever been
taught to listen, been given feedback on our listening skills,
or even spent any time thinking about how important good
listening is. This would be a good time to do all three. I’m
certain your human resources department can help you find
a class; your spouse or significant other will give you feed-
back; and now that it has been brought up, you can figure
out the consequences of bad listening on your own.
4. Ask follow-up questions. They distinguish a good inter-
viewer from an average interviewer. We’ve all experienced
the frustration of watching an interviewer ask a question,
get an answer from the interviewee that begs for clarifica-
tion, and then, rather than asking a follow-up question,
simply move to the next question on their list. If you’re like
me, at that point you tune out the rest of the interview.
Why? I believe that this behavior (not asking follow-up
questions) sends a message to anyone who’s listening, not
to mention the person you’re questioning, that you’re just
going through the motions. The questioner is obviously
more interested in asking their questions than in getting the
interviewee’s answers.
When this behavior is exhibited by leaders, their
employee’s mental dialogue goes something like this: “Here
we go again, probably went to another seminar on being a
better leader, and this week we’ll be subjected to a lot of silly
questions. Probably has a quota of questions for the day.
Doesn’t care about the answers at all.”
The one drawback of asking follow-up questions is that too
many of them in a row starts to sound and feel like an inter-
rogation. You can encourage clarification of points made in
an answer by using verbal encouragers (formally called
directed lead statements for those of you who want the
technical term). You probably use them already during
interesting conversations. “I didn’t know that, tell me
more.” “What else happened?” “Did it happen again?”
Although these are, in fact, questions, they are delivered
without the upward inflection that is the verbal equivalent
of a question mark. They are delivered with a flat end as a
statement and will encourage further dialogue.
5. Say thank you. Your mother was right. Writing that thank-
you note was important to the giver of the gift. No matter
how often they said that thanks wasn’t necessary, it was.
Saying thank you to someone who’s spent time helping you
by answering your questions will increase the likelihood
that you’ll get more and deeper answers the next time you
ask. And the way news travels in organizations, this thank-
you behavior will enhance your reputation as a leader.
Consistently practicing these five behaviors will turn you into an
effective questioner—one who gets answers. In the next chapter,
you’re going to be asking yourself some questions. You’ll be able to
practice these skills on yourself—focus on a single question, stop and
think, listen to both the things you say and the things you feel after
each question. Ask yourself follow-up questions to dig deeper, and
give yourself a pat on the back for answering.
The Power and Problem of Why?
Why is it that adults who understand, on an intellectual level, the
need for two- and three-year-olds to learn about the world around
them by asking questions are driven crazy by the sound of yet
another Why? I believe this frustration comes from the adult’s
resentment that the child didn’t accept their first answer. Successful
parents quickly learn that their child’s why is an amazing entrée into
the learning process. Children have to ask more whys because they’re
asking questions in order to understand, and that learning happens
under the surface. Repeated whys push the answerer beyond the sur-
face. Why takes them to the details they need to satisfy their curios-
ity. Notice that a child’s whys will stop when they have enough
information to satisfy their quest. A powerful result from asking a
simple one-word question.
Repeatedly asking why of adults can have a different, less favor-
able result. An adult, when confronted with a barrage of whys, may
feel as though their authority is being questioned, their reputa-
tion is being challenged, or their expertise is being doubted. This
isn’t a great way to start a dialogue. But why does get you under
the surface, the place you need to go in order to solve problems,
expose underlying issues, or uncover problematic attitudes. What’s
a leader to do?
Here are two suggestions for a leader to use why effectively.
Discover the one that fits your situation best and practice.
1. Watch your tone of voice. The most common problem with
the simple question why is the way it is asked. Try the fol-
lowing exercise. Close your office door or mutter under
your breath so the people around you don’t think you’re
crazy, and ask the one word why with the following emo-
tions behind each why.
Search for knowledge
Could you feel the difference? If you pay attention to the
emotion that is driving your need to ask why, and if you
control it properly, I think you’ll be okay. You will get
immediate feedback—the nonverbal reaction of the person
you’ve asked—and that will help you monitor your skill in
asking why in a positive, nonjudgmental way.
2. In a more formal setting, possibly a team meeting, use the
Five Whys technique made famous during business’s focus
on quality. Asking why five times in a more formal process
with Post-it notes and flipcharts takes much of the accusa-
tory nature out of the why process. The technique is fairly
simple. Decide on the issue you need to explore and put it
on a flipchart. Together with your team, ask why. You will
probably get several different answers to that first why. Put
each answer on a flipchart and explore four more whys for
each of the original answers. Your intent in this process
is to get to the root cause of the issue. By the way, the
flipcharts are optional. A legal pad works just as well. The
intent of this process is to remove any feeling of attack
or confrontation.
Just because asking why can be difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t
be asked. Leaders need to discover the ways they can ask why with
a spirit of curiosity and learning. Asking why is a basic skill that all
leaders need to master. Think about how you can use why effectively.
After asking why for a while, you’ll be motivated to ask the other
questions in this book.

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