Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Ask, Don't Tell

In this blog, I give a lot of advice. I am a teacher at my core and I like to share tips that will help others. This blog is a great outlet for me, because when I am in “coach” mode, I turn the advice off.
The best coaching is the kind that helps the other person access their own wisdom. (I know, doesn’t that sound wise?) The best coaching means asking questions that help the person clarify their thinking and consider looking at things in a different way. The best coaching helps them become a better thinker, a better solution-finder, and allows them their own “ah-ha” moments that really don’t happen when someone else tells them what to do. The best coaching allows people to transform into their better selves through the simple act of asking questions and listening.
Sure, occasionally a client is “stuck” and insists on getting some answers from me. I try to be careful with this. I offer suggestions and tips that may or may not work for them, giving them the ultimate choice about whether to try them or not. After all, they are the only ones who are walking in their shoes, and they are the only ones who know whether something will work for them or not. And, taking another’s advice is often not very motivating so it is bound to fail when they don’t follow through on it. (And then they may blame the advice-giver.) However, if through questioning and coach-guided pondering, they come up with the answers on their own, they will be more inspired to follow through on what they’ve come up with.

The exact same reasoning applies to your employees. Too many managers believe that being a strong leader means knowing the answer. Leaders think that is what they are there for, to provide solutions. They jump in with the answers when their employees come to them for help. Unfortunately, by providing the answers, they are keeping their employees from developing, and therefore keeping their organization from developing healthily too.

Providing answers trains your employees not to think or be creative. It trains them to stay dependent and when people feel dependent, they feel held back, repressed, and powerless. Sounds like a mix that generates low morale and low motivation, doesn’t it?

A client recently told me that one of the most significant behavior changes he made as a result of coaching was to pause and ask questions of his employees instead of providing answers and advice. Because of this one conscious change, he said it has allowed him to be more transparent, sharing what he doesn’t know or understand, and has allowed him to learn about new issues. “If I slow down,” he said, “I can get some meaningful responses. Sometimes it validates what I already know, but it really helps me get buy-in. Before, I would just tell them. Now, I listen first and talk second. I am less of a policeman, less of a controller; I just let things happen more and don’t try to control them. I am more into the moment - building dialogue and connections."

Wow – building dialogue and connections. What a great way to develop and motivate his staff.

One thing that works for every person whether they are manager or individual contributor, parent or friend, is listening first, asking questions second, and offering advice as a last resort, if at all. Think about how much advice people give you. How much of it do you actually take? What if, instead of offering you advice on what to do in a situation, they walked you through thinking through the problem to find a solution? What if they asked questions like:

What outcome do you really want?

What do you need to do to take the next step?

Would it help if I acted as your sounding board as you went through possible next steps and their scenarios?

What resources do you have right now that can help you with taking the next step?

What is in your way that is impeding your progress?

How would achieving your goal affect you and the people around you?

Questions like these help the listener focus on the solution instead of the problem. They help the other person develop their own problem-solving skills and determine and commit to next steps without getting overwhelmed.

Sometimes people come to you with a problem and they don’t want your advice or to be walked through to a solution on their own. They really already know the answer; they know what they have to do. But they just want to vent. That’s okay. You may need to ask: ”Do you want to talk through a solution to this or do you just want to vent?” If it’s vent, let them complain for a few minutes. Everyone needs to let off steam once in a while. The best bosses allow their employees to come into their offices just to vent for 3 minutes. That’s enough. Let them know they can come in to let off steam with no repercussions any time. Empathize, then send them on their way.

Leaders have to realize that employees, especially younger ones, probably need to be retrained in order to think for themselves. For their whole lives, from childhood through college, their parents and their teachers have told them what they should be doing. Rarely do parents and teachers teach them how to think for themselves, as students are rewarded for the “right answers” and kids are rewarded for “minding”. Now they are employees and you, their manager, are just like their parent or teacher. They want to please you so they want to do what you want them to do.

What you want them to do is think for themselves, be creative, and be solution-oriented. Listening to them, asking them questions, and coaching them will help them become motivated and productive knowledge workers.

So next time someone comes up to you with a problem, resist the initial urge to give them advice. Pause and ask a question. “What do you think?  What do you want the end result of this situation to be? What can be done to get there? How does that work?” Give your employees their own power back. They hold the best answers to their own problems.

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