Ever wondered why change can be so difficult? Many wonderful change models exist, yet all but a few truly consider the brain and neuroscience. This missing element from change management often explains change success stories, as much as the disasters. If you are a change agent (i.e. a teacher, leader, parent, manager...) ignore the brain at your peril!Read More
Not surprisingly, questions are key to the results you see. Ask a bad question and get (at best) useless answers. Ask a great question and there is even a chance for a transformative outcome. Here's the thing though: we are rarely taught what makes a powerful question. We just seem to osmose a repertoire of questions that others have asked us. With the best questions ready to deploy, and the right choice of question at the right time, you will be seen as insightful, in tune and influential. Combine skilled questioning with deep listening and you become transformational, whether as a parent, teacher, coach or leader.
1. Ask permission...
This secret weapon of buy-in is so often overlooked, yet is critical in engaging a blue zone response. Depending on the context, an unexpected and unusual question, quite apart from triggering red zone threat responses, can divert limited reflection resources to trying to make sense of why the question has been asked. If you are in a general conversational context, try something like:
"Do you mind if I ask you a bit of a thinking question?"
"I'm curious - do you mind if I ask you a few questions about that?"
"Do you mind if I throw an interesting question into the mix?"
If the question coming might be confronting, you might ask:
"Do you mind if I ask you a tough question?"
This preps the mind and creates buy-in to reflection-style thinking.
If the context is more formal, shape the permission accordingly. In a coaching session for instance, you may already have permission (even expectation) to ask interesting questions, so buy-in should not be an issue. But, a change in direction might need permission:
"We started by covering fitness as the main context for today, but you've just mentioned some other factors impacting on your health. Would it be OK to explore these, or would you prefer to just work on the thinking around fitness?"
Permission is a powerful engagement tool that covers off the need for autonomy (the A in the SCARF framework from David Rock).
2. What did you learn?
So often, when recounting a situation (positive or negative), we stay stuck in the detail. Bringing attention and accountability to a situation helps someone actually articulate what was gained or learnt (even in negative circumstances). When the brain has to give structural sense to an idea by constructing spoken language, often a great deal of clarity is the result.
This question is also often the missing element when we are holding someone accountable to something that went wrong. Completing this sort of conversation with "What did you learn?" allows the value of learning from mistakes to be articulated and actioned. In this case, follow "What did you learn?" with "What are the implications?" (how does it change things?) and a call to action: "What will you do now that you know this?" To further increase accountability, add "By when, and who will know?".
As a final comment around this question, note that we learn more from what does not work than we do from what does. Adding this question to reflective thinking on such outcomes allows the learning value to be found. Hard wiring the Learning From Action framework set of five questions to your repertoire adds high value to your influence, whether as a teacher, parent, leader, manager or friend:
- What happened? (Tell me about it)
- How did you feel (Articulate the emotions, deepens learning)
- What did you learn?
- What are the implications for your learning? (How does it change things?)
- What happens now that you know this? (Turns thinking into action).
The beauty of this framework is that it is cyclic - after the action has happened, you can ask the same framework again, reiterating the learning-action process.
3. The Miracle Question
Emerging from Solution Focused Therapy in the 1980s, this powerful question - it calls out an ideal future in the brain and strongly connects it to the present. The potential for a better future to be actualised via this question is probably the highest of any question I know.
There are a few variations, and the exact wording cane shaped, but broadly it goes like this:
"If a miracle occurred overnight, and when you work up tomorrow, things were as perfect as they could be, what would be different today?"
The keys are to (a) have the future 'perfect' or 'as good as it could be' state identified, and (b) to have the difference between the current state and the future solution articulated.
This question works powerfully when there is some autonomy and ability to influence the future state, so careful framing, or careful use within this context is required. For example, asking this question to someone who has just lost their partner will not provide a useful answer.
love adding other questions to depend the value of the original question, and two great examples from the second link shown below (via Andy Smith's site) include:
- 1. Who else would notice that this miracle has happened? How would they know?
- 2. Does anyone else have to change in order for this miracle to happen?
I also like to add some ratings questions to further sharpen a now-future comparison:
- How would you rate your current [dimension*], say out of 10, against this ideal state?
- What rating does the ideal state get out of 10? (Beware, it may not be 10/10)
[*Dimension could be, for example, satisfaction, effectiveness, confidence, success...]
This gives a gap analysis for the 'coachee', and can be easily be linked to the next phase of questioning around strategy (to get from the current rating to the ideal rating). I'll be talking more about ratings questions in the next blog on this topic.
urther information on the Miracle Question can be found here:
Call to action:
- Comment back with your top 3 powerful questions
- Start to ask powerful questions - it is the only way to build them into your available repertoire...
Coming soon: Questions 4 to 7 in the 10 great questions series...
So you think you are a great listener? Test yourself against these five traits and see how well you do. Give yourself a rating from 1 to 5 on each trait (1 is rarely or poorly expressed, 5 is habitually and permanently a part of the way you listen).
1. Quiet mind listening
Great listeners do so with a quiet mind. We have very small attentional budgets, and the more noise and conversation we have going on in our own heads, the less attention we have to devote to listening to another person. Given that attention on the other person, for the other person, is the currency of engagement, this is a critical characteristic of high- performing listeners.
Key reflection question: How quiet is your mind when you listen?
2. Full observational attention on the speaker
We have limits on how much attention we have to 'spend' (and it is far smaller than we might suspect). The more we spend attention on ourselves, the less we have for the speaker, and the lower the engagement, empowerment and true solution-finding. The best listeners are generous with their attention - they 'spend' as much as they have on the speaker, and do so by observing. Observing what they hear, what they see. This then gives conversational content for the listener to feed back to the speaker: "What I see/hear is..."
Key reflection questions: How much do you observe the speaker? How well could you reflect back to them succinct observations (not interpretations) of what they have said, or what you have seen?
3. Listening for the speaker, not for you the listener
The secret X-factor of engagement (or even influence or charisma) is the generous use of attention by the listener, for the speaker. When we detect that someone is listening to us for their benefit, our trust, engagement and/or connection with them falls. This is, indeed, the social default in our world. We rarely experience being listened to in any other way. Often, when somebody does listen to us for us, the effect is profound.
Key reflection question: How much of your listening is geared for you to gain something (eg an outcome for you or the speaker)?
4. Absence of agenda, judgment, assumption and/or advice
Unconditional respect and acceptance is most fully expressed (and experienced by the speaker) when the listener disengages from default positions of seeking a solution, giving advice or pushing an agenda. Such a listening attitude also creates a conversational environment absent of judgement, empowering the speaker to access their own solutions and confidence. In many ways, this point is a variation of point 3 above - if you display advice, agendas, assumptions or judgement, then you are really listening more for yourself than the speaker.
Key reflection questions: How aware are you of a your need for a particular outcome or agenda? How often do you seek to find a solution for the speaker? How often do you find yourself judging the speaker? What assumptions might be in play in your thinking?
5. High self-awareness
The best listeners observe the conversation much the same way as a coach might observe a football match - from some distance and/or elevation. This perspective allows the listener to have some, if not low levels, of attention on monitoring themselves for unhelpful emotions, agendas or thinking. This distance from the conversation allows observation to flourish.
Key reflection questions: When in a conversation, are you involved and 'in the game' (using the football metaphor) or are you connected to the person but distant and observational to the content (like a football coach)? How aware of yourself, your emotions and any emerging agendas, assumptions or advice?
How can better listening advantage you?
Coaches who want to coach well: It is an imperative of sound coaching that the coach listen deeply, observationally and without filters, agendas or judgement.
Leaders who want to have influence: many people in your workplace would think or say “Why should I listen to you if you won’t listen to me?” This is particularly true of Gen Y and younger people, including today’s students. When people are heard and acknowledged, the are more open, creative and resilient.
Parents who want to engage with teenagers (or any children): Parents, generally, are struggling to maintain a ‘grip’ on the development and management of their teenage children. The thing is, if your teenage kids are not listening to you now, it is almost too late. The time to demonstrate listening is at as early an age as possible, certainly before puberty. When children know that you listen to them, you have far greater influence on them as teenagers. All is not lost, but it does take greater effort and change by the parent to re-engage their teenage kids.
Teachers who want better student behaviour: When students know that a teacher listens, that the teacher accepts them as they are (unconditionally) and that teacher is there for them (encouraging) then they will work hard not to let this teacher down. Student management demands are far lower, and students are more engaged with the teacher (if not the content). Note how this all starts with listening .
So how did you go? A score of below 10 says that you need to spend some serious time addressing your listening skills - those around you would say that you don't acknowledge them well, or don't understand them deeply. They may also interpret your low listening connection as low respect.
Most people would score between 10 and 20 - if you are here, look to your lowest score and work on this aspect of your listening.
If you scored over 20, then you are indeed a deep and effective listener. Congratulations, you have high influence with others, and you are well respected.
1. Ask for some informal feedback from others around you on how well they percieve your performance in the above 5 traits. How does this compare with your self assessment? Where are the gaps? What actions arise?
- Theory U, by Otto Scharmer - http://www.ottoscharmer.com(he references 4 types of listening, download an outline of Theory U here)
- Why Listening Is So Much More Than Hearing - Seth S. Horowitz
- This TED video:
I've long been a fan of Michael Bublé, both as crooner and person. This video shows so much of who he is, and is a heartwarming example of what I describe as Blue Zone brain function. I encourage you to watch this a few times, the first just to engage with the lovely emotion of the clip. Once you've got that bit out of the way, take a more forensic lens and view this from a leadership perspective, more as a metaphor. How many leadership 'actions' or behaviours can you label in what is less than three minutes of engagement? List them, and compare with my list below...
I actually found more than ten, roughly in order of appearance:
- Supporting risk taking
- Stepping away
- Sharing the win
- Humility/self deprecation
How did you go? Are there any you listed above that you want to challenge? Any that I missed?
As a parting question, what effect do you think Bublé's short engagement would have on Sam? In my view, acts of leadership that tick even a few of the boxes above, large or small, can have a lasting positive impact on the life of another...