Stop Telling, Start Asking

June 2014, by So-Young Kang

Leaders often feel that their role is to give directions and ‘tell’ people what they need to do. I have coached a number of CEO’s who would role play conversations with me where they essentially are telling their subordinate what their expectations are, where they have fallen short or explaining why this is important. While there is value in setting expectations and sharing your perspectives and views, there is a time for ‘telling’ and a time for ‘asking.

Here are some indications that you may want to try a different technique. You feel you have explained yourself for the nth time. You don’t seem to be getting through. The behaviour continues. You are both frustrated.

When you are in this situation, you may want to try the power of asking questions. But before you ask the questions, your mindset and beliefs on how you approach the situation are most critical. Here are some ways to get yourself into a mindset that will foster communication.

  • Start from a place of curiosity to understand why the miscommunication could be taking place. Where is he/she coming from? What assumptions is the other person making? It may seem obvious to you, but why isn’t it obvious to the other person?
  • Assume the best in the other person. If the person was an idiot, then you would likely not have hired the person. So if you assume that the person wants to do a good job and agree with my belief that people don’t wake up in the morning wanting to do a bad job, then be open to understanding where the person is coming from.

This thinking is consistent with principles of appreciative inquiry which believes that if you focus on the positive intentions and motivations, you are more likely to produce positive outcomes. This can include better business outcomes, stronger relationships, more effective communications and more creative solutions.

Here are some questions to help you have more powerful 2-way communications:

  • Here are some things I observed. Can you help me understand where you were coming from?
  • When we last spoke, I walked away with this understanding.What was your understanding? How did you interpret what was most important?
  • What is important to you in this context? How can we align our interests towards a successful outcome?

There are many more powerful questions we can use. Please share your powerful questions with the broader community.