Webinar: Powerful Questions
What is one of the most effective ways to engage and inspire the people you work with?
The answer is simple, but not always easy: ask powerful questions.
Asking more questions seems like a simple enough idea. But putting it into practice requires changing your mindset, and building new habits. Many leaders believe that to be successful they need to know all the answers. They live (and lead) with the pressure to prove themselves: creating hierarchies, telling others what to do, and using fear-based tactics to accomplish their goals. This style of leadership can work for machine organizations where efficiency is king—where the goal is not to engage or inspire people at all, but merely to get the job done.
Leading an organization with a creative culture requires a different approach. If you want to encourage innovative thinking from people at all levels, you don’t need to have all the answers—you need to ask the right questions. A well-timed and well-phrased question will inspire people to find their own answers, and opens the space for them to fulfill their greatest potential. Asking powerful questions—and listening deeply to the answers—helps people build confidence by giving them a voice. You’ll help spark new ideas to improve the business or address pressing issues. And you’ll be part of building a culture of deep trust that leads to better collaboration.
Learning to ask powerful questions is a skill set that you must develop over time. This webinar is the perfect place to start.
- How asking questions can transform your organization (and all your relationships)
- The elements of a powerful question
- Examples of powerful questions you can use today
- A systematic approach for incorporating powerful questions into your leadership style, and your life
Register below to access the webinar recording
Elise Dorsett: Hello everyone, and welcome to the webinar. We’re so excited to have you. This is the first webinar we’ve hosted here at New Kind, and we want to say thank you for joining us.
First, a few things to get started. All attendees are muted, so use the Questions feature when you have questions or comments, and you can share where you are calling in from if you’d like, to go ahead and test this out. Also, we’ll send this recording to you, so take notes, but know that you’re going to be able to access this later.
My name is Elise, and I’m the Director of Brand Exploration here at New Kind, and I’m here with Pippa Armes, who’s a content strategist and she’s been helping us with the technical aspects of this webinar. Then of course, David Burney, who is going to be leading the majority of the content here.
I want to talk a little bit about David. He’s had a really interesting career, and the journey to get us here has been pretty fascinating. The first thing you need to know about David is that he’s a designer, and he’s brought that design mentality to everything he’s done in his career. He’s also an AIGA Fellow, and he’s an entrepreneur, too. He’s started multiple businesses, and with the businesses he’s started, he’s taken a particular focus to build creative and innovative workforces, and studied that problem for a long a time, that opportunity.
He also has experience as an executive at a global company. Many of you are probably familiar with Red Hat. He was the Vice President of Brand and Design there. Then most recently, he’s the co-founder and chairman at New Kind, and has embarked on a new journey most recently as a leadership coach, so he coaches executives and emerging leaders. This webinar really stems out of some studying that he’s been doing around that area of focus.
Today, here’s where we’re going to be going over. The first thing is why your questions matter today. This is setting up the context for why questions are so important today, and then our definition of mindful leadership and why we think this is really essential for leaders to know, and how this definition fits into the context of questions, and then the nature of questions. This is where we’ll be getting into specific frameworks that you can use to ask questions more skillfully, and then making an impact. Listening is half the battle, and you really have the power to transform someone’s life in the way that you listen to them, which we’ll talk a little bit more about later. Without further ado, I’m going to pass things over to David.
David Burney: Thanks, Elise, and thanks, everyone, for joining us on our maiden voyage here, and if it’s a little choppy or whatever, I hope you’ll bear with us. We’re excited about what we’re doing here today, and we’re excited that so many of you have decided to join us.
I’m a child of the 60s, so I learned a long time ago that … Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a great place to start. The first question here with Powerful Questions is how do powerful questions … Why are they important? Really, the big answer is that powerful questions are a way to help people change their perspective, and it’s a way to help people transform. Those are the two big things that we’re looking at that we believe about powerful questions, and I want to emphasize as well that this is not some manipulative way to get people to do what you want. It’s not playing games. This is not like the Riddler. This is a way of being authentic, and open, and a way to build collaborative, strong collaborative teams, and scale those teams. We’ll get a little more into that later.
Then fundamentally, why is this true today? Why is this true today in some way that maybe is different than it was a decade, or two, or three in the past? I think it’s all about, “How do you make the biggest impact? How are you successful in your purpose, and what it is you’re trying to accomplish?” You know, in the past, Peter Drucker once said that organizations who don’t align their strategy with their structure are doomed to failure. This is about how to succeed, and even in the old way, we would talk about strategy often as a way to win, so however you define that these days, we like to think of it as having an impact. Understanding how to use questions is going to be a way to help you make a bigger impact. Fundamental to this is that we believe conversation fuels innovation, and that questions fuel conversation.
One of my favorite business gurus, and I may be moving quickly here, but again, you’ll get the presentation again, and be able to sort of go deeper into the subject, the ones that are interesting to you. Henry Mintzberg has been one of the most insightful business gurus that I’ve studied over the past 20 years in my career, and his strength has been looking at organizational structures. Again, structure and strategy, there has to be an alignment there for any organization to be successful. We talk a lot about strategy, but we don’t often talk about structure.
The two that we want to talk about today, so we take this beyond simply the … We’re not even going to look at the other four, but if we look at the two, and what I think is the key for the shift that we’re undergoing, and why questions are so important, is that we’re moving in a lot of ways from the machine organization and that machine strategy, being one of the most competitive … In fact, one of the most competitive structures that have ever existed, that as we’ve gone into the industrial age, those organizations, those geographies, countries, people, who understood and were able to build the strongest machines had an immense competitive advantage. What we’re seeing today, though, is that machine organization is not driving such a competitive advantage anymore, and there are a lot of reasons for that. We’re not going to go into a lot of those here, but the real key is that today, companies are looking to be more innovative and more creative to compete, and individuals as well. The problem is that the machine organization is such a part of who we are that there are a lot of myths and things that we bring along with that, that we try to apply to the innovative organizations.
One of the points I’ll just make very quickly is that when we think about machine organizations, we’re talking about organizations that are focused on productivity, and efficiency, and there’s no ambiguity. It’s very simple and direct, linear in the way that they work. They’re neat. It’s very neat, whereas humans tend to be very messy. Here’s a picture of Jackson Pollack’s studio, and I love this studio, this photograph in particular, because while I’m a big fan of Jackson Pollack’s work, when I look at this, I think of just how messy that space is, literally, but it’s a great symbol or metaphor for how humans interact, and how we have a conversation, and even though you may say, “Well, it’s only Jackson Pollack there.” Well, the truth is, everything in there is talking to him. He’s having a conversation with that art as he’s creating it.
The further, the little deeper point to make, if you’re an artist, or this is also true of athletes, when you’re creating something, when you’re involved in some highly creative effort, and you get into the flow, one of the things that happens is it quiets down that little internal dialogue that most of us have going almost all of the time, because you are such a part of the conversation, right? Whatever’s happening there, you’re in the flow. That’s what we’re talking about, is how can we get our organizations, and as a leader, how can you help the people there to kind of get in the flow? All right. Again, a little messy, but I think this is a great way to look at it. The difference in the acceptance of a messy organizational kind of style, an ad-hocracy, which Mintzberg calls it, in which conversations are going on, as opposed to a machine organization, which is neat and clean.
With that, I want to talk about some of the things that we believe here at New Kind, that questions create, and questions bring forth. Number one, questions create clarity. We live in an age where disruption and ambiguity are kind of daily occurrences now, and we think, or the myth of the machine age, is that if we can just find clarity, we’ll cut out all of that. I think the reality is, that’s not going to happen, but if we use questions, we create clarity that’s really more powerful. It’s more authentic, and it’s going to help you make that bigger impact.
Next, we believe questions help build trust, and we think the evidence is that when you’re trying to work with humans in a messy organization, things are disruptive, there’s a lot of ambiguity, but as a leader, you really have to rely on trust, not just power, to be effective. Building trust is very important, and questions build trust. We’ll talk about that later.
We’ll also talk about how questions honor humility. One of the big challenges for leaders these days is that people experience leaders often as being arrogant. There’s a lot of hubris, the further up the food chain you go. That really destroys trust, and here’s the one thing I’ll say. When you are recruiting, trying to attract and recruit, hire, train, and retain really good, creative talent, if you’re arrogant with them, if they see that evidence of the hubris, if they don’t feel trust, the good ones leave, and they leave early. As we all know, it’s expensive to recruit and find the right people and then have them leave. This is a real important point of being competitive, and being able to have that impact that you want.
Finally, we think questions are a great way to help keep people around you accountable. Again, the power dynamic changes. Instead of the machine organization where you’re telling people what to do, you’re measuring all of those sorts of things. Not that measurement’s wrong, but when that becomes the mode, and that becomes the standard for everything, you have to acknowledge that you’re building a machine organization, so your people are not going to scale, they’re not going to be able to think for themselves. They’re not going to be creative and innovative, or they’re going to be less so. Let me be clear about that.
These are real problems. I just did a quick look at Harvard Business Review recently, and I found a lot of articles that kind of hit on all of these points. The importance of trust, the importance of finding clarity within ambiguity, how arrogance can really create problems for you, if you’re trying to transform in your organization a new way, and that managers are often very terrible at accountability, because they look at it in more of a machine way. That’s a shortcut, from my point of view, at least.
I’d like to just take a moment here and encourage you to think about, and this could be now, but also, I’m a big believer that journaling is a good thing for leaders to do in the age that we’re in, to keep a journal, or often I’ll get in front of a big white board, and just kind of write the issues I’m facing, begin to mind map those. This is one I would give you as a homework assignment. What would you say are the requirements for creating an innovative culture, if you begin to think about it as contrasted to machine organization? That’s an assignment for you.
Here’s what we would say, is that we believe that it’s important for leaders to be more self-aware than ever about what makes them tick, what their fears are, what self-imposed obstacles that they bring, biases that they bring to the conversation, and be more mindful about how they interact with the people around them. We’re talking about mindful leadership, and we’ve adapted something from the Institute for Mindful Leadership. We’re big fans of that website, and what they’re doing, that movement. We did change it a little bit, because we have a little more focus on curiosity. That doesn’t say they don’t, but I think we like making that change.
We believe a mindful leader is someone who embodies leadership presence. Again, that’s, “How are you present when you’re in someone else’s company? What is your presence, and how are you present?” By cultivating focus, clarity, and curiosity, and compassion in the service of others. When you begin to combine those things, our job is to help cultivate focus. It’s not to demand focus, or to determine what the focus should be necessarily. It’s cultivating it. It’s cultivating clarity. Again, things are going to be changing all the time. You probably are not going to have moments of pure clarity. You’re going to have moments where things are more clear than other times, and helping people be comfortable in that ambiguity, having people in fact accept, and adapt, embrace that ambiguity, and that the search for clarity, this is a subtle difference, but that clarity only is something you can be more or less, there’s probably not going to be pure, and helping people be okay with that.
Curiosity, really everything is driven by curiosity, and finally, unless it’s in compassion and in service of the folks that you’re leading, in today’s world, you’re not going to be as successful if they don’t feel that, if they don’t genuinely feel that compassion that you have.
Here’s a challenge that we have, and research is proving out Peter Drucker’s quote. This is probably a 70-year-old quote, or a 75-year-old quote from Peter Drucker, and if you don’t know who Peter Drucker is, I’d advise you to look him up. He’s imminently quotable, and this is one of my favorites. “Most people think they know what they are good at. They’re usually wrong.” Current research is showing how true that is, and how our brain is wired to fool us. We rationalize things. We begin to create reasons that we think we’re right, but the reality is, we have our own blocks, our own … And I’m stumbling here a little bit, but the one point I want to make is that there are avenues here for you to take, and one of them is to continually ask for feedback. To be open and humble, and ask the people around you often for feedback. In fact, you say things like, “Does this make sense?” “Am I going too far?” Just ask them questions, and invite them to give you feedback, and make it clear that you’re open to that, because you have to understand and be mindful of the fact that we all have our hangups, and we bring them with us, and we’re often wrong.
Let’s look at the nature of questions, and I’d like to … Again, this is hard for us. Being very self-aware. I love the story of the fish, where the older fish swims by and asks, “How’s the water today?” And the younger fish answers, “What the heck is water?” Often, as we’ve talked about, the machine age kind of ideas are so ingrained into our systems, or our education, all sorts of things that we buy into it, when it’s no longer true for broadly competitive advantage. I want to bring that same kind of self-awareness to just the nature of questions.
The reality is, most of us, since we were four years old, have been asking questions. It’s very natural. It’s just instinctive. It is how we learn. It is how we explore. We learn about power by asking questions. It shows our curiosity. We also learn that sometimes we get to stay up later if we’re asking questions, right? We can be manipulative by asking questions, and we learn that all at an early age. In fact, this is my grandson Cash, and he will be four this summer, and we’re already starting to see that out of him a little bit, and of course it’s adorable. But the average four-year-old asks 430 questions a day. That’s you and me, and everyone else, when we were four years old. It’s such a natural part, like breathing. It’s a natural part of who we are, that maybe we don’t always stop and think about sort of the theory behind questions, or the very nature of questions.
I’m going to show you three frameworks for us to begin to explore a little bit more about questions. The first one is this one. There are these different relationships between questions, and I want to go through these one at a time, and we’ll kind of go through this quickly. Again, this is a webinar. We do this in a workshop where we spend a little more time on these things, but we’ll move fairly quickly through this. I think you’ll get the idea. There’s a relationship between open and closed questions. The more powerful questions are, the more open they are, or the more open they are, the more powerful they are. The closed questions really shut down conversation. Again, if you think about, if you’re wanting for your company to be more innovative, part of your job as a leader is to create an ad-hocracy, an innovative organization where conversation is happening. You don’t want to do things that stop conversation. You want to do things that fuel conversation. Open questions, questions that elicit an explanation, are a great way for … Those are powerful questions.
Now, we say here that these typically begin with “how” or “why,” but I want to caution you with “why,” that “why” is often the question we want answered, but people often have a negative connotation. They’re defensive. They’re put on the defensive when you ask, “Why?” Just think about that for a minute. When someone comes up to you and says, “Why?” Just that one word alone, it sets you back a little bit. I know for me at least, my lizard brain immediately wants to fight. It’s like, “Why do I have to answer why to you?” You know? You want to be careful about overusing the word “why,” and the way you might ask that would be, “Can you help me understand?” Or, “What happened that led to …” There are ways to do that, and as you’re more aware of it, and begin to switch those out, you’ll find it and catch it. Journal about that at night. “What did you do well?” “What can you improve on?”
Those questions, especially questions that are yes or no in response, this whole process follows the laws of physics. A law in motion tends to stay in motion. Yes and no responses stop the energy. They stop the motion, so practice that. Be aware of it. You’ll notice that you do this more than you think you do, and then pause. If you’re getting ready to ask a yes or no response, or ask for a yes or no response, just pause for a minute and think about how to rephrase that question.
Now, the next area, and this is a very important area for us, this is the balance between emotional and intellectual. If we think especially in the corporate world, and places for leading people, we tend to be very afraid to go into things that are emotional. That’s true for us individually, that we’ll begin to rationalize things so that we feel like we’re being logical and rational, as opposed to really processing our emotions and sitting with them, feeling how we feel, labeling that and understanding it. When we begin to move to intellectual questions, often we’re doing that not because we’re really interested in the intellectual question, but because we’re afraid of the emotional answers.
As a leader, I would advise you to really be open to exploring your own emotions, and those of the folks around you. I would say that when you’re talking to someone, and they either tell you, “I’m angry. I’m mad. I’m frustrated. I’m sick of this.” All the words that people may say to you, or you notice it in their body language, right? They tighten up, they close their arms, they drop their head. There are all kinds of tells that they’re feeling emotions. You may see them blush, or their eyes may begin to tear up, or people start crying. For you to just kind of sit there with them with that, and not leave, not just try to fix it, not just start rationalizing and going to an intellectual place, but just to say, “I see that you’re feeling … You seem to have a lot of passion about this. Do you want to talk about that? It’s okay.” Or just to reassure them, “It’s okay. No. I’ll just sit here with you while you process through that. It’s okay.” Those are great skillsets for leaders who want to build powerful organizations.
Then this idea of past and problem-oriented questions as opposed to solution and future-oriented questions. Now, I would say that both of these have a real powerful place. Both of these types of questions. The question is, though, if you stay in the past. What you don’t want to do is get into a place where you believe that if we know what happens in the past, and we do that in the future, that everything will be perfect, like this idea of best practices. Again, best practices are good to know, but if you begin to believe that that’s how it works, you can get to a place where you’re not, and the people that you’re leading are not looking as possibilities. They’re not looking at what could be, but they are looking at what has been. That’s the very definition of innovation, isn’t it? Creativity, at least, is being able to see possibilities, and if there’s a culture where people are not comfortable talking about things that might be possible, you are losing the opportunity to have a big impact as far as creativity and innovation happening.
Finally, and this is similar to emotional and intellectual, but the idea that we should always be professional, and in control, and never embarrass anyone. These are tied together. I’m going to recommend a book right now. This is one of my very favorite all-time books, business books. It’s called The Responsibility Virus. It’s 15 years old now, written by Roger Martin, and he’s written some great books on design thinking, and innovation, and all sorts of things, but he has not done anything more important for me personally than the book The Responsibility Virus. He talks about the fears that happen in the workplace, and how our rationalized approach makes it worse rather than better.
As a leader, the more you can be comfortable with inviting people to share their personal stories, this can be very powerful for a leader. In fact, one of the things I’ll mention, there’s a story in the movie Saving Private Ryan. For those of you that have seen it, you may even remember this. There’s a group of men here, soldiers who have been sent on a mission, a dangerous mission to save one soldier, and they’re doing the math, and going, “This makes no sense that eight of us are leaving to try to save one person.” They’d just lost two soldiers, so they’re already doing the math. One soldier is threatening to leave, and he creates a crisis, and the captain, played by Tom Hanks, kind of stops things. Going into battle, nobody knew anything about him. They found him a real enigma, and at this moment, Tom, he begins to share his personal story of who he is, what he does for a living, what his life is like.
He tells them, he says, “You know, I don’t know whether this is a good mission or not, but if it helps me get back to my wife, then I want to do it. I’m ready to do it.” There’s this sharing of a personal story that’s powerful, and I think is a great illustration of this idea.
Then I want to share, finally, one more model here.
Elise Dorsett: This is the second model.
David Burney: The second model. Thank you. This model is really looking at … This is a way to kind of simplify things. This gives you a framework for realizing that first of all, one of the things that you first want to do is to clarify or assess kind of where you are. [crosstalk 00:28:26].
Elise Dorsett: Did you find your place there?
David Burney: That’s okay. When you’re clarifying, you want to ask those questions that … First of all, again, what you’re trying to do as a leader is to get conversation going, right? That’s part of your job. You want to say, “Tell me what’s going on. Talk to me.” And, “I don’t understand what that means, exactly,” is a great way to kind of respond so that you’re not taking the responsibility of it. It’s their job to tell you not only what it is, but what it means.
Secondly, “Can you tell me more?” Right? “Can you say more?” Often, when people tell you something, they’ll tell you the problem, or the issue, the challenge, and then they’ll stop. Often, they haven’t thought about it any deeper than that, you know? That’s where the thinking has stopped. That’s why they’re coming to you now, and for you, this leader, to say, “Tell me more?” It pushes them to dig deeper. Often they’ll begin to have insights when they go that next layer down, right? Another question, “What is an example?” And this is kind of the one, when we were talking earlier about looking to the past, where you can say, “Tell me an example. Tell me where this has happened before.” You can begin to look at that. Part of what you’re doing is assessing, and you’re clarifying what the issue in front of you is.
Then, often, once that happens, part of your job is often just to help them change their perspective, to help them see other possibilities. Again, if your goal, if what you really want is to build a creative, more innovative organization, then having people who can think in terms of possibilities, and go into divergent ways of thinking, is what you need. If they present you with one solution, you can say, “Well, what are other options or other possible solutions? What else might work? What else can we think of here?” One way is to sometimes ask them, “Well, when you faced this sort of thing before, what are other ways? How would you choose this if you were in another place?” Just begin to ask them these questions. It’s not so much what you ask. It’s just that you’re asking them to continue to talk and generate new ideas. They can be silly ideas. Again, the body in motion tends to stay in motion.
Then one of the ones that I love is, “What do you think that might mean?” This is a place where you’re asking them to look at different ways that things might resolve themselves, because you’re asking, “What are different ways this might mean?” Often, we jump to the top of our ladder, or someone pulls our string, and we immediately go to an emotional place. For you to say, “What do you think that might mean?” Helps them break that down, and again, find a different perspective, and see that there are many possibilities, not just the one that they decided when they heard the very first thing.
Then at the end of the conversation, you always want to bring it back, and again, keep it on their plate, of, “What’s going to be happening next? What’s your action point? What’s the next thing you need to do? What’s the first thing you’re going to do? Do you have the resources to get that done? What will you have to do to get it done? Do you have the support? Is there someone else you could talk to? Is there someone else who could help inform you, who has been here and done this many times?” Those sorts of questions that you don’t want to ask too soon. You want to go through the clarification. You want to go through possibilities, divergent thought, but in the end, you do want to come back to this.
The last quote there that I’ve just heard this line, this question, in this way in the past week, when Roger Martin was doing a webinar that I tuned into. He has this new way of saying this, which I love, which is, “What has to be true for that to be true?” If what you want to do is to … If you’re going to be someone who’s reading more books, what has to be true for that to be true? Well, you’ve got to carve some time out for that. You’ve got to turn the television off, or you’ve got to put the screen down. You’ve got to read two pages. Just read two pages. That’ll get you started. What has to be true if I want to lose weight? I’ve got to quit buying that pistachio gelato that I love. There are things that you do when … If what you say you want is true, there are things that have to be true for that to happen. And when you ask that question, it starts to really bring things together for people, so they go do it.
Now, the last framework that I want to talk about is all about building awareness. This gives you a really strong framework that you can use. You can print this out and put it in your pocket, and just use this framework alone, and get started. I think it’s wonderful. It’s from a book called The Coaching Habit, Michael Stainier, S-T-A-I-N-I-E-R. It’s a beautifully written book, very simple and direct, and just like this framework, it gets right to the point.
Think about your first question when someone comes in. As I said earlier, what you want to do is just get the body in motion. “What’s on your mind? What can I help you with today? What’s going on? Tell me about it.” Generally speaking, you sit and listen, and hear what they have to say, and when they’ve come to the point where they’ve kind of finished, the second question is brilliant, and this is the all question are, “And what else?” The beautiful thing about this is that when we are in a problem solving mode, where leaders are more pressed for time, we’ve got so many things we’re dealing with, and someone comes in with a problem and an issue, in that machine model, you’ll say, “Well, you go do this, this, and this, and that will take care of that.” They go, “Okay. Thanks.” And you leave, and they go, “I really needed to talk about this.” Right?
That pause, and again, you’re not in the mode where you’re being the savior or the smartest guy in the room. You’re the one who’s trying to get them to have the insights by asking questions, so that they are learning and growing, and the company can learn and grow. People often do not present the real issue they want to talk about the first time. They want to see what your presence is like. They want to make sure that this is a good time to talk about things. They have to build that trust. What you want to do is to build that trust. At this point, when you say, “And what else?” That gives them that possibility to dig deeper. We talked about that earlier.
The focus question is question number three, and this is where you come back to them. Again, you want to be building accountability in all this, if you want your company to scale and you want to build a creative culture. Your question is, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” This is a great way to keep it on them. Again, they may be having trouble working with someone that they feel like they can’t work with anymore. It’s easy to say, “Well, you can’t change somebody else. The only person you can change is yourself.” But it’s better if you could just say, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” And so they have that insight themself. “What’s the real challenge here for you?”
The fourth question, and this is, again, where if you do read The Responsibility Virus, one of the things Roger Martin talks about so much is the leadership’s tendency to go too far in fixing things, because we want it perfect. We want it done exactly, or we don’t want any mistakes. We take on too much responsibility, and eventually we fall over and fail because we’ve done that. I’m sorry. I skipped over the fourth question.
The fourth question that you want to ask them is, “What do you really want?” This question comes back to reminding them that this is about them knowing what they want, and they can make choices for themselves. There’s a story I tell that’s a true story, not that I wouldn’t tell a false story occasionally, but in this case, this a true story, that in the last year, I’ve coached two different people, both of whom who have worked probably a decade or so, one in a corporate position where they’ve ended up in a position of power and prestige, and they’re making good money, and the other who started their own business 10 years ago. Both of them have been very successful in these roles, and they’re both sick of it, and both of them, strangely enough, said that what they wanted to do was quit and start building motorcycles.
Two different people, but as we got to this question, “What do you really want?” One of them began to talk about his family, and his children, and in the end, he decided he didn’t really want to put his family through that risk, but he loved building motorcycles. He could still do it on the weekends. We began to look at how to change his perspective on his work so that he could find a new way to deal with the issues that were causing him so much pain. “How can we restate that? Reframe those issues?” The other, who came to me and said, “I’m having health problems. I’m really sick of this. I’ve just got to get out of here. I don’t want to do this anymore, and this is what I want to do.” He now has stepped away from his business for the most part, and he’s a full-time student at a community college, studying how to build motorcycles. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s really, what do they want? What do they really, really want? When we can focus on what that is, we can help them get to where they need and want to be. Oh, and by the way, one of those guys just woke me up with a really nice followup [inaudible 00:38:59] the other day, just to say “thank you” yet again. He got the impact of it.
Back to the lazy question, and this I think is great. This is kind of like, “What’s the real challenge here for you? This is about you. What do you really want? How can I help you?” We don’t start volunteering, getting in there, and again, being the savior, or being the smartest guy in the room. All those things feel great, but if what you really want is to build an innovative organization where the people are creative and they scale, you don’t want to be the savior, and you don’t want to be the smartest guy in the room. For you to make them even come to you and say, “Here’s how you can help.” There may be a place where you say, “You know what? I don’t think that’s a good thing for me to do. I think you can handle this. I believe in you.” You put it right back on them.
One of the things that you do, as you move forward then to the next question is, “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?” This is again, that very top line strategic question. This is one that often when I’m coaching people, and they say they want to do something, this is what they really want to do, and my question will be, “Well, if you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?” You can do anything you want, but you can not do everything. In fact, that ability to know the one thing you really want, and go after that, is incredibly powerful. All these other things that sound good in the short-term, really are not very important, and they take up a lot of your attention. This question of, “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?” Or, as Roger Martin says, “If this is true, then what else has to be true?” These are great questions to ask.
And then finally, you never want to leave one of these conversations without asking, “What was the most useful thing here for you? What did you learn?” You want them to be aware, and for yourself to be aware of what just happened, so that you can continue to get better and better at your crap, but also for them to recognize that the insights that they’ve had in the conversation were theirs. They were their insights. They were not you telling them something. It was theirs. That question of, “What was the most useful for you?” And often I will have people say, “Well, thank you so much for really helping me out with this, and what you told me was great.” And I remind them, “I really didn’t tell you anything. I simply asked questions. You answered the questions.”
I think this is a great, great framework, and I invite you, encourage you to put it to use. But I want to remind you of the next layer here, which is, this is a quote of Marshall McLuhan, who is to communications in the 20th century, or was, what Peter Drucker was to management theory. His line, “The medium is the message.” We all can recognize that, that a post-it note or a text message is different than a one-on-one, face to face conversation, or a conversation over dinner, or that a conversation walking down a hallway is different than bringing someone into your office and sitting there and really listening to them. But that media itself has a message. The message, if you send someone a text, the message is, “I’m doing this quickly. I’m usually not giving this deep thought. This is a quick, one-on-one sort of meeting.”
Be very aware of the medium you use, and the message inside that medium. Then also remember the tone, the manner you use. Are you dismissive? Are you looking other places when you’re talking to someone? Think about the entire context of the message to make sure that when you’re asking questions, that you’re really … Your presence. This is about presence, right? That you’re really present there, and focus on that. We’ll get into more of that now, in this next section about how to really make an impact.
Today, everything hinges on listening. Listening becomes a gateway through which leadership is initiated. We’re going to talk now about three levels of listening, because real listening is fueled by curiosity and empathy. We talked about that a little earlier. For those of you who don’t know who Ronald Heifetz is, he literally wrote the book on Adaptive Leadership about 20 years ago, and really was influential in setting off a lot of the changes in management over these past few decades, and it’s moving in the direction that we’re talking about here today. Curiosity, empathy. You want to care about that person, and be empathetic with them and where they are, and secondly, you really want to let your curiosity fuel that conversation. I challenge you, when you sit down and talk to someone, that can you sit there and be excited about the possibility that they may surprise you with something brilliant that you have never thought about? Right? That you are so curious to hear what they have to say, and that you believe in them with such power that you’re not there to save them. You believe that they’re smart, they’re creative, they’re resourceful. They can figure this out, and you’re just curious as hell as to how they’re going to do it, right? And you’re doing this for them.
This gets us now into the next three levels of listening. On the first level, and I think most of us, virtually all of us, virtually all of the time, really listen with our internal listening ears on. If you think about the world of listening here, in this case, and you [inaudible 00:45:22] focus, in internal listening, a leader is thinking about a problem. Someone has gone to you with a problem, and you are thinking about, here in the discussion, what’s your agenda? What’s your experience? Where have you seen this before? What are your opinions about this? What are your judgments? What’s your bias? All of these things are happening, and they’re happening quickly. “Do I believe this person? Are they full of it? What’s going on?” Right? As leaders, we don’t have a lot of time. We are moving quickly, and so we’re going back to our best practices. These have worked for us before. It creates this inner dialogue in which we’re not really even listening to them so much as we are listening for cues as to what we will say next.
The leader’s attention is on a problem, and his or her preferred solution, rather than on a person, [inaudible 00:46:18]. Now, think about the difference. That’s not even being empathetic. It’s certainly not being curious. It’s simply trying to solve a problem. That’s that first level of internal listening, and again, if you’re listening to someone, and you find yourself thinking about what you’re going to say next, or just wishing they would shut up so you can say the next thing and get on with it, that’s all internal listening, that’s not really focused on the person.
The second level of listening is, this is a really good level, right? Focused listening. This is where if you consider these two entities here, there’s the leader, there’s the other person, but in this case, their focus is on that other person, and so when this is the case, what you will see is that you are focused on your awareness here. You want to be hyperaware of what they’re doing, what they’re saying, what their movements are like. You become almost a mirror here. Not in some manipulative way like someone who wants to sell you a used car, or get a date, but you really are a mirror for what they’re doing, because you’re really watching and seeing, “How are they moving? What are they saying? What’s the tone, or the way they say it? Did it change?” And you’re reflecting these things back to the other.
In fact, often you’re saying, if someone says, “Well, you know, I’m really fed up with working with this guy.” And you could say, “Well, it seems like you really don’t like working with this guy.” Right? You’re really just saying it back to them in a way that confirms to them that you’re listening. That’s very powerful in and of itself right there. What you want is your attention to be so focused here that the mind chatter, that inner dialogue that we talked about, virtually disappears, and the conversation becomes almost spontaneous. The leader is no longer trying to figure out the next move in this model, right? This is really powerful stuff, and this is great. The more we can develop this, this will work for you very well.
But then there’s a third level that I think over time, you may be able to experience from time to time. I will say I’ve been coaching now for several years. I’ve been managing creative people very much in this sort of way for most of my life, in that this next level is something that you experience. It comes and goes, but it’s really wonderful when you do experience it. In here, if you take on even a little deeper level of commitment to the conversation, so instead of thinking about the world, think about the universe this is happening in, and really what you want is for you to focus on this as if you and that person in front of you are the only two people in the universe. Now, that may sound goofy, but I want you to think about a time in your life, a person in your life, that when you talked to them, you felt that way. You felt that they were listening to you as if you were the only two people in the universe, that they cared about you, they were empathetic, they were curious, they weren’t judging you, they weren’t telling you what to do. They were simply listening and letting you have the insights as you talk.
As you think about that in your life, I think what you’ll realize is, this is an incredibly rare event. As a leader, for you to take that on, to have that intent, to believe in that possibility, this can be a very transformative thing. For me, that was my grandmother, and I could sit with her and talk to her about things, and she would just listen. She didn’t correct me. She didn’t tell me what I was doing wrong. She didn’t judge me in any way. She just supported and loved me, and I could listen to that. But that is an incredibly rare thing, so that level three, you want to be listening as if you and that person are the only other people in the center of the universe.
I will tell you, I mentioned earlier I believe in journaling, so to keep a journal at night about how you are as a leader, what you’re learning along the way, what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. I also, when I get up in the morning, one of the things that I remind myself, and I’ve tried to remember this every morning, is that I may have the opportunity that day to be a part of someone transforming their life, right? The way they see things. Changing a perspective in some huge, meaningful thing, or just experiencing this sort of experience again, which is really meaningful. To allow yourself that, put yourself in that place could be very powerful.
I want to begin, as we begin to wrap things up here, I want to remind you of another Ronald Heifetz book which I love, which is Most Leaders Die With Their Mouths Open. I think that’s true. We simply talk too much. To quiet that down, I’m going to give you one more bit of advice, and that is to consider this acronym: WAIT. This is a reminder that when you’re getting ready to say something, that you just think, “Why am I talking?” If there’s not some reason, if I don’t know what it is I’m trying to say, just be quiet. Just a moment of quiet between two people can be very powerful. You can test that out. Allow there to be some quiet moments, and just see what they say, and see what they do in that moment. If you don’t know why you’re asking a question, then just don’t. Don’t ask it.
All right. I’m going to ask you today, what was the most valuable thing for you today? And I think that, I know we’ve had some folks ask some questions, and-
Elise Dorsett: Yeah.
David Burney: This is a good time for us to … Again, we’re going to send you a survey. We’ll attach a survey when we send you the link, so any feedback you have would be great. We’d love to have that from you. We really would love honest feedback, in that we’d say that it’s something that’s a gift to us.
What do we have, Elise?
Elise Dorsett: Great. Well, thank you so much. The first thing that I want to read is Dan writes in, “Good questions lead to free whiskey? Well, I’m in.” I’m in too, Dan. That’s great. Then we had a question from Marco, and he wrote, “What are the attributes of questions that are useful to make change? Would you use an open question, or an emotional question? What would you recommend, if you were trying to create change?”
David Burney: Well, I would start off with saying that I want to remind everyone that when you sit down there in this conversation, you really want to believe in that person. You want to believe that they’re smart, creative, whole, resourceful, and that they can own these things. If we’re trying to get them to accept change, or we have a certain point of view, I think the question is, “Can we get them to change in ways that we want them to change?” I think we want to be real careful about that, right? In fact, if you know what you want, and you feel like you’re moved to say it, then I think the best thing to do is just to be very direct and say, “This is what I want.” Because your authenticity is important here. If you have a bias or a belief, or you know something has to be done a certain way, then just own it and go with it. But in terms of change, the transformation, as I said earlier, taking that point of view of being very curious, totally believing in them, and letting them see that, and then listening at as high a level as you can be, being so present and plugged into it that you’re letting your intuition and your hunches kind of play out in that, that leads to transformation and change.
Elise Dorsett: Great. We have time for about one more question, so we’ll go with this one. “Do you have any recommendations for how leaders can practice asking powerful questions before they start using them with their teams?”
David Burney: Oh, that’s a great question. Here’s a point that I would make. I think you can start this, and this is another reason I use the Jackson Pollack illustration. Any of the things we’ve talked about here, you can actually have a conversation with yourself. I won’t get political here, but that whether you call it meditation, whether you call it prayer, to get in a quiet place alone, and kind of … In your journal, I think, is a great place, and to ask yourself these questions, you know? Just ask yourself, “What do I want to write in this journal today?” “Well, today I want to talk …” And just allow it to happen, okay? “What else?” Ask yourself, “What else?” “Well, maybe I want to talk about this. Maybe I want to … This happened today.” “Well, what do you want to do about that?” Right? Just to start asking yourself. You can actually do that.
Secondly, certainly friends and family. Try it on them. Sometimes with a friend, or you may have a kid. Where you might normally get in there quickly and start correcting them and telling them about how things ought to be, try it with your 10-year-old or your 13-year-old. Ask them the questions. “What else? Can you tell me more?” I know kids will say no, right?
Elise Dorsett: Yeah.
David Burney: But if you practice these things, and they begin to see that you’re not telling them, then see if it doesn’t change some of those relationships. I think you can try this anywhere. Again, the focus of it, it’s saying, “I’m going to stop. I’m with this person.” We’re in the room. We’re having a cup of coffee, and they start talking. Instead of thinking, “What am I gonna say next?” Just follow up with those questions with them. “Boy, this seems real exciting for you.” Right? You mirror it back to them. Or, “You seem really frustrated about this. Want to talk about it?” Or, “How can I help you?” Right? These questions you can ask just over a cup of coffee, with your neighbor in the backyard, whatever. You can practice this sort of thing anywhere, and it’s also, I think, fine in terms of authenticity and trust to be transparent about it with the folks that you work with. Say, “You know, I’m trying to just ask these sorts of questions. Help me out. Give me feedback on how I’m doing.”
This is a real quick introduction to it. We do workshops in this sort of thing. I’m also coaching, so if you have some issues and areas where you’d like to improve in, you can give me a call, but this is an introduction.
Oh, again, before we leave, I want to mention some of the books and things where I’ve done research. I’m going to mention four books in particular that I think … I already mentioned The Coaching Habit. I think it’s a great book. There’s also a book called Executive Coaching With Backbone and Heart, and if you think of this, this is really looking at this entire idea, is looking at coaching as a model for leadership. This is written by Mary Beth O’Neil, Executive Coaching With Backbone and Heart. The Responsibility Virus, which I mentioned earlier, by Roger Martin, and the book Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives, which is written by Henry and Karen- this is a couple- Kimsey-House is their last name, Phillip Sandahl and Laura Whitworth. That’s a big team of folks writing that. This is a great book for coaching, and great resources, and some of the things that we have borrowed here, or have been inspired by, are from these books. We’re more curators than we are researchers here. I’m a practitioner as well. I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and it’s powerful stuff.
Thank you again for being here today.
Elise Dorsett: Yes, thank you very much, and we’ll catch you on the next one.