I am unashamedly passionate about the need for leaders to become master communicators; to learn to have powerful conversations that – one conversation at a time – stimulate quality thinking, hold people accountable to useful effort, create insight and behaviour change, and focus people on ‘useful activity’ rather than ‘interesting distraction’.
Taking a coaching approach to conversations is a powerful skill, but what do you do when the people you are trying to support just want you to tell them what to do? They don’t want to be asked the hard questions and they actively avoid, and even resent, having to take responsibility and make tough decisions.
Interestingly, the human brain does not like to be told what to do, so why do we find so many employees wanting the quick answer from the boss?
Firstly, consider that essentially, your brain is lazy – and for good reason. You (and all of us) exist in a socially sophisticated world with a primitive brain and that causes problems. One of the brain’s KPI’s is its capacity to conserve energy and so quality thinking, particularly if not well supported or collaborative in nature, can be effortful.
Secondly, your brain is designed to automate behaviour. Any thinking or behaviour, useful or not, that is repeated is deliberately directed to your ‘automatic brain’ and turned into a habit. If you are in the ‘habit’ of providing the quick answers to the questions that your people fire at you all day long, and making their decisions for them, then combined with the brains desire to conserve energy, you potentially have team members that will come to expect this and will avoid going outside of their mental comfort zones. Habits are light on energy, so when you challenge someone to start thinking more deeply for themselves when this is not the norm for them, you are asking their brain to use more energy, which the brain will naturally resist.
The implications of being a boss that ‘tells’ and ‘solves’ are three fold:
- People get lazy and expect that the boss will do the heavy mental lifting, and this results in day-long interruptions to your focus and a drain on your mental energy.
- The boss (you) ends up doing everybody’s job for them, and that leaves insufficient time (and brain fuel) to do the heavy mental lifting for your own job (ie, ‘I don’t have time for the strategic thinking I should be doing!). You end up with everybody’s monkey on your back.
- And then when it all turns to pooh, whose fault is it – the boss (you again). ‘John told me to do that!’
So back to the issue of the brain not wanting to be told what to do. Essentially, being told is non-consciously processed as ‘you think I’m dumb’. Often the asking is more of a checking that their thinking is correct. You would have experienced yourself the situation where you asked someone for advice and their well-intentioned response is peppered with ideas and thinking that you already knew or have tried – and we quickly tune out when that happens.
Leaders must strike a balance between supporting the thinking of others …and providing both technical and relational advice that is useful.
Here is an idea on how you might subtly begin to shift the balance of mental energy consumption, get some monkeys off your back, and motivate your people to engage in some great thinking and self-accountability.
In my brain-based coaching skills program – Conversations of Substance – we investigate what I call Accountability Questions. They look something like this:
So what DO you know about this?
What thinking or research have you already done OR what have you already tried?
What do you THINK you need to do?
What specifically is the missing information or decision you need from me?
It is reasonable to insist that, even in situations where there is a knowledge or technical gap, that a discussion around what people already know and have already tried or researched is key to finding the ‘actual gap’ in knowledge. You will often discover that they already know the answer, but may not have been confident enough to make a decision or to articulate their view – and this should lead to another conversation about why they didn’t feel they could do that.
Asking a few qualifying questions can save everybody a lot of time. Challenge yourself to get into the habit of asking these types of questions before launching into solution mode and you will find you will lighten your own mental load and support others to do better thinking and to learn and grow.
One of my regular exercise spots in Brisbane is high on a hill, overlooking the city, and features an enormous water reservoir. One lap around is 800 metres, and many families walk there with their children on bikes, and their dogs happily exploring. I love going there.
On Monday, I heard a child ask his mother if people were ‘allowed’ to take the bikes down an off road attached to the main road surrounding the reservoir. The mother hesitated and then replied, in a supportive and apologetic tone… ‘I don’t think so, mate!’ The disappointed child turned around and continued to cycle on the main road.
My first thought was ‘what road?’ In all the years I’ve been running there, I hadn’t really noticed it – I had stayed focused on my task at hand and not considered any alternative routes. it took the fresh eyes of a child to bring an unfiltered perspective.
My second thought was…wow, that was an unintentional curbing of that child’s curiosity… along with the assumptions that the parent made allowing for the maintenance of her comfort zone. I’m sure I’ve done this with my kids too.
Perhaps the mother could have asked a couple of questions like…
‘Is there a sign that says you can or can’t?’
‘Do you think it looks safe to go down there?’
‘How steep is the road, and do you think you could handle that slope?’
Or she could have acknowledged the value of the child’s observation. Something like…
‘Oh, I’ve never noticed that road before! Good on you for seeing it. Let’s walk down there together to check it out and then we can decide if it’s safe.’
Leaders can fall into a similar trap. They have been doing things one way for so long, (and it’s worked for them so why change) that they can fail to notice and appreciate alternative points of view or ways of achieving a specific outcome. This is normal, protective, human behaviour. The human brain likes to conserve energy and will resist changing an activity or thinking pattern that has been ‘hardwired’ through repetition and past reward.
So, when others get curious and ask for ‘permission’ to explore or experiment, it can be too easy for the leader to simply redirect back to what the leader knows will be safe.
Is your organisation filled with assumed rules and boundaries that perhaps curb curiosity and creativity. Do your leaders play it safe, and in the process fuel mediocrity and inhibit innovation? Beside depriving the child of the excitement of exploring the unknown, who knows what he might have discovered – perhaps a whole new bike-riding area? It’s the same for leaders who are pressed to deliver and therefore choose to play it safe.
To shift this, leaders must develop a different mindset, a new set of conversational habits, and a level of self-leadership that embraces natural curiosity, humility and vulnerability, and create an environment where people have open permission to think, to be curious, to challenge the status quo and to bring new perspectives to old challenges.
Three of the most powerful words in any leader’s vocabulary should be – ’what if we…’ and all people in the organisation should be encouraged to use them. An experimental mindset is critical if organisations are to thrive in this VUCA* world. Imagine if scientists only ran experiments where the outcome was guaranteed? Discovery, innovation and learning would be sadly missing.
Here are three simple things you can do that will make a big difference…
- Any time someone asks you ‘Can I … ‘ or ‘Should I …’ you should respond with ‘what do you think?’
- Notice when the answers are coming too quickly from you. That could mean that others are relying on your expertise to much to solve their problems. Even as a leader you don’t need to be doing everybody’s thinking for them. Encourage others to think for themselves a bit more and build their own expertise.
- Ask more questions, and then shut up and let people think. The average elapsed time between when we ask a question, then answer it is 7 seconds.
These small changes will help you to get some of the monkeys off your back, encourage a higher quality of thinking, and shift accountability…leaving more time and brain space for you.
*VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous
I’m a late starter.
I began drinking coffee at age 50, mainly because my experience to date had been delivering countless cups of home-brewed Nescafé and toasted sandwiches over many years to my parents on the front porch and, quite frankly, it didn’t look all that appealing.
In recent years I had become known for drinking Green Tea (with dark chocolate on the side – see my GREEN TEA AND DARK CHOCOLATE blog). I began drinking Green Tea because the experience of sitting with friends in a coffee shop and drinking water was no longer doing it for me, and because my naturopath told me it was full of anti-oxidants and apparently that’s good.
I was privileged to have my first coffee delivered to me in the Di Bella Boardroom, by my colleague, friend and great coach, Gian Di Bella. It blew my head off so I’ve toned my preferred brew down. I now order a ‘Michelleuccino’ – skinny cappuccino in a mug, extra chocolate on top. This special combination does a couple of things: satisfies my chocolate addiction; controls the calories (yes it does!); tells me something about the person/establishment serving me – do they listen and are they flexible and accommodating; and it often enhances the experience for me – I get my coffee delivered with a smile and a comment like ‘skinny cap for the lady with EXTRA CHOC on top!’
I love it. I feel special. I go back for more.
Great experience seems to be sadly lacking. Having said that, a great experience not only stays with me, I talk about it, pay it forward, and develop loyalties through it. All things being equal (or not) ie, the quality of the coffee, I will frequent the coffee shop with the better experience.
We buy, and buy-in to great experience and that includes the experience that organisations provide their clients, and for you as a leader, it must also include the people who provide the experience for the client, your people.
We’ve spent decades mastering the collection and analysis of data and information. That’s great but it’s no longer enough.
The challenges of employee engagement are distraction, elevated expectations, personal goals and desires, and wanting to feel part of something of value and that they respect. Particularly for the younger generations, it is not uncommon for them to leave your employ ‘because I didn’t like working there’. They seek alignment with values and great experiences.
How do your colleagues/team experience you?
Do you make them feel valued and respected? Do you give them dedicated time, and more importantly during that time are you totally present and focusing 100% on them?
What is the experience of a conversation with you?
Are you a teller? Is your opinion and expertise the most valuable input to the discussion, or do you ask great questions to help them think things through and experience the joy of resolving issues on their own? Perhaps you have to admit that you like the sound of your own voice and you’re addicted to being right?*
What are meetings with you like?
Are they productive or stagnant wastes of time? Do you provide the agenda, or do you check in on the needs of each individual and dig to make sure that what they say is really what they need? Do they truly feel heard and gain value from attending – or is it just you? Are they giving lip service to your perceived needs because you are the boss?
How do you experience others?
Do you seek to elevate them, to dig deep to find and facilitate their ‘awesome’? Do you accept them for the unique combination of strengths and weaknesses that they are, and work to help them be successful? Are you open to being challenged or disagreed with, even if they are not elegant in that endeavour?
And most importantly…how do you know the answers to these questions? Have you ever asked?
What is your next question?
(*’Addicted to Being Right’ – wonderful words from Judith Glaser – Author of Conversational Intelligence)
It’s interesting that one of the most consistent comments I get at the end of my Rewired Conversations program is ‘I didn’t realise what a bad listener I was!’
Our perceptions of what constitutes a good listener have changed over time. Consider this gem from the 1980’s…
1. Sit up
2. Look interested
3. Lean forward
5. Act interested
6. Nod your head to show that you are tuned in
7. Track the speaker with your eyes
These ideas are focused on what you do, and what you are seen to be doing – sadly with no mention of the purpose or process of actual listening. I would call this…listening without substance!
Great listening, or listening WITH substance is focused on who you are in a conversation and how you are showing up. You can show up as a Consultant to the thinking of others, or you can show up as a Facilitator of great thinking for all.
Let me explain the difference…
When you show up as a Consultant, you show up with the purpose of being the expert in the conversation or meeting. You have content expertise, or a leadership responsibility that brings status and responsibility and feel compelled to bring that into the conversation, or you have experience or insight into the situation at hand that could be helpful. That’s fine, but the risk of showing up with a Consultant mindset is that you might listen for:
• The problem you know how to solve (which may not be the problem they need to solve)
• Opportunities to share your expertise or experience (when that may not help the situation)
• The information that supports your thinking on the matter (to make you feel useful and valued)
• Information that you want to know or that might be useful for you (to benefit your KPI’s or desired outcomes)
The Consultant mindset is normal for us because it satisfies a number of our motivational needs. Our need for Status (a feeling of being valued and respected); and our need for Predictability and Control (when we are in control of the situation, we feel secure). The dopamine hit we get when we contribute or solve a problem for others is addictive, but not always useful.
On the downside, our tendency to make assumptions and to want to jump straight into the satisfaction of solution mode mean that we miss discovering the real issues that need to be addressed. Mostly, we talk a lot and waste a lot of time.
When you show up as a Facilitator, you show up with the purpose of skilfully enabling great thinking – both yours and others. My definition of a powerful conversation is one where…
“Everybody leaves the conversation with different thinking than when they came!”
This requires a different level of listening. As the Facilitator, your focus and expertise is on the quality of thinking you and others are engaging in. Your energy is focused on what is going on with others in the conversation, not just what is being said. You might listen for:
• Emotion and energy (where does the truth and the real issues lie)
• Patterns in language (is there an unseen pattern that needs to be highlighted for greater clarity)
• Choice of words and focus (is there a repeated word, or theme, or a tendency for negative over positive that tells a story)
• Ways to help the thinking (what curious questions need to be asked to help clarity)
• What others need to be fully focused and present in the conversation (is the conversation going off on tangents)
When you show up as a Consultant, it’s all about you and your needs. When you show up as a Facilitator of Thinking, it’s all about others and the greater outcome.
The thing is, leaders have KPI’s, targets and desired outcomes to meet, and the reality is that in order to achieve those, they need to mobilise their teams and colleagues. And in order to make it work for you as a leader, you need it to work for them. And you need to listen in a different way if you are to have any chance of figuring out what ‘working for them’ looks like.
Test yourself today on whether you are showing up as a Consultant, or a Facilitator of Thinking. Would love to hear your thoughts…
If you would love to delve much deeper into the idea of listening, I can highly recommend the latest book from my friend and colleague, Oscar Trimboli – ‘Deep Listening’. You can access it on Amazon here… or from Oscar’s website.
As I have become older, and busier, and more distracted in my work and home life, my capacity for making decisions has felt really challenged, and from my conversations with colleagues, it seems I am not alone in that challenge. There are a number of things that can get in the way of making decisions.
I often say to my clients…’people don’t tell the truth and they don’t know what they want’. This is not intentional, but our natural cognitive bias and subjectivity get in the way. We are not good at challenging and stretching our thinking (which is why having a great coach is invaluable) so what we think we want and have articulated is often not quite right and there is a need to reflect deeper.
Another of our human challenges is our relative incapacity to manage complex and conflicting data, or simply volume of information inside our heads. When it gets too much, it’s overwhelming and the brain interprets this as threatening and pulls back it’s thinking in favour of protection.
Thirdly, our need to be ‘accepted’ is one of our strongest human motivational drivers, and the risk of making the wrong decision, or a decision that might negatively impact the favourable perceptions of others toward you, even if that risk is very low or indeed if the decision is necessary, will evoke an avoidance response and procrastination will ensue.
Here are three ideas you might like to consider in order to improve your decisiveness.
Figure Out What You Really Want
This is actually quite a tough one to do on your own, but take some time to reflect on the real outcome you are looking for. It may be useful to ask these questions of yourself:
- What are my big picture goals that relate to this, and to my life/career/role? Can I articulate them in one or two sentences?
- Is there a specific dilemma that is causing the need for this decision? Can I articulate it in one or two sentences?
- How do I feel about this issue and how do I want to be feeling around it?
- If resources were endless and there were no risks, would the decision be easier? If so, what are those risks and resource constraints and are they fixed or can they be managed?
- Is my gut/intuition telling me something that I’m not listening to?
- So, in one sentence, what is the specific decision I am needing to now make?
Investigate All The Options
Make a long list of options and alternatives. Consider including the options of doing nothing, going with your gut, and also the not so palatable ones like making the unpopular decision. Your first options will be the obvious ones…then ask yourself the following questions…
- What else could I do?
- What else could others do?
- What would Richard Branson do?
- What would X (important person you respect and admire) do?
Kill Off Choice
We live in a sophisticated, privileged and complex world with many, many options and choices. It’s overwhelming.
The latin word for decision literally means ‘to cut off’…or ‘to kill off’. Think about other words with that etymology…pesticide, suicide, genocide, insecticide…and fungicide (yes, that’s a word!).
Cutting off choices sounds severe, but is not liberating, it’s limiting. Making a decision frees you from the shackles of endless choices so that you can get where you want to go.
First list your options then connect back with your desired outcomes and bigger picture goals, and try to reduce the options to a maximum of 3…or less.
Hypothesise and Experiment
Your brain is not designed for, nor good at, absolutes. Your thinking comes from networks that are constantly active across all areas of your brain – an electrical storm of firing and connecting. The concept of stop, start and continue is more difficult than you think, the stop and start bit in particular. It’s a bit like when you don’t feel like going to a party or an event – it’s a real effort to go and would be much easier to just sit at home and watch TV, i.e., hard to get started. However, often, when you do make the effort you have a great time and then don’t want to come home – i.e. hard to stop!
Your brain loves to stay in it’s comfort zone because that is both non-threatening, and therefore energy efficient, both of which are of vital importance to your brain.
One way to overcome this is to adopt an experimental mindset – like a hypothesis. After gaining clarity, investigating the options, killing off choice, and connecting the most useful option to the desired outcome, you can then articulate the experiment that you (and possibly your team) are about to enter into.
“I have decided that we should ….my thinking behind that decision is …..l expect the outcome to be….but let’s treat it like an experiment and review it in two weeks to see if it has been the right decision”.
Pressure off…brain happy…you can move on to the next decision knowing that it’s not an absolute and reducing the risk of failure and humiliation.
My daughter is in Year 10. This is the ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ year. To my delight I discovered my own copy from 1980 when I was in Year 10.
To support her I decided to read it again. Needless to say my experience of the book was somewhat more enjoyable and intellectually reflective than my original attempt, and I endeavoured (with her permission of course) to coach my daughter around some deeper insight around the story. My first question to her was “So why is it called ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’?”
Hmm, good question, Mum!
So we worked through that one and I threw her some other questions to think about. There is so much to reflect on in terms of the story beneath the story in this novel and I was keen to enjoy unpacking it with her.
When I asked what the assessment for the semester would be, she explained that they had to write an ‘intervention’. Apparently this means she has to pick an event or situation in the book and rewrite it with a different outcome. Not what I expected, and kind of negating the need to continue with the intellectual reflection (or so it seemed on first thought).
My response was ‘why?’ What is the purpose of that activity in terms of your learning and appreciation of the novel you have just read?
She had no idea. Her only (understandable) focus was on what she had to do to complete the assessment, and probably a bit of how and when it needed to be done in order to tick the appropriate boxes.
We live in a ‘what’ and ‘how’ world. It’s a shallow world in need of a good dose of substance.
Simon Sinek (Start with Why TedX) famously proposed that organisations that know why they do what they do are infinitely more successful than those that only know what and how they do it. (Check out his TedX if you haven’t seen it).
When we take the time to ask ‘why’ of ourselves and of others, we are infinitely more successful than when we only focus on ‘how’ and ‘what’.
The ‘what’ and ‘how’ is easy, but not meaningful. It’s the ‘why’ that engages us and connects us with the meaning that drives motivation. It is the ‘why’ that ultimately drives our decision-making. It is the why that enables insight and engagement.
Along the same vein, when my daughter was attempting trigonometry homework and exhibiting less than desired enthusiasm for the task (my recollection of the experience 30 years ago was pretty much the same), I suggested we google ‘why’ trigonometry. We discovered that it is used for things like measuring the height of waves, and to measure the height of buildings and mountains, and in video games and so on. Whilst she is still not a mathematics fan, asking and discovering the ‘why’ provided some context and meaning behind the activity and helped her to make the effort required.
Think about your conversations at work – are they ‘why’ conversations that test assumptions and get curious, or are they ‘what’ do we need to do and ‘how’ will we do it conversations that are uninspiring and repetitive?
Think about your meetings at work – are they ‘why’ meetings that challenge and stretch your thinking and lead to innovation and simplification and clarity, or are they task-focused ‘what’ and ‘how’ meetings that lead to detail and overwhelm.
The very simple act of stopping and asking ‘why’ can made a huge difference. Give it a try for a day.