“What’s one of your key takeaways from our time together?” I asked Bill.
“In the past, my mindset was ’just send a memo.’ Now, my goal is to lead by engaging people. Sure, some decisions are directive by nature, but now I see that those situations are limited … especially, when there is high stress or conflict.”
With a stressed relationship, it’s easy to push back or withdraw. It’s natural to react with the ancient and automatic fight-or-flight response. Fueled by surprise and little time to examine the story, people react. The goal: to survive the attack.
So, the default communication style is telling. There are at least five reasons you might naturally tell people what to do when stressed.
- Habit — “Telling” is your historical approach and you believe it works, after all, it got you this far … right?
- Speed — There’s no time to “discuss” this … let’s cut to the chase.
- Experience — You’re the expert and already know the answer.
- Emotion — Frustrated with unfulfilled expectations, just tell ‘em how it’s going to be!
- Authority — “Because I said so. I’m the boss. And I’m right.”
When was the last time you enjoyed someone telling you what to do? Was it when you were two or three-years-old? No? Perhaps, it was during your teen years … when you discovered your parents were right, right? Not happening.
Of course, telling or teaching is required in training, setting expectations, or when giving instructions. But when things are tense, telling is unproductive behavior.
What’s the secret?
Effective leaders know how to craft and use open-ended questions. Because in stressful moments, closed (yes/no) or leading questions limit dialogue.
Open-ended questions engage others. They support the pursuit of truth. An open-ended question begins with how, what, when, where, who, what if, and why (if used with care regarding tone of voice.)
Open-ended questions are the secret power of effective communication and influence, especially in an emotional or stressful situation.
Consider these benefits of open-ended questions, they:
- Create space to think — Emotionally charged situations bring out the irrational, when “stop and think” would be helpful.
- Demonstrate respect — When you ask for input, it says “Your perspective matters.”
- Support objectivity — A well-framed question s l o w s things down in a positive way.
- Cultivate cooperation — Most people just want to be heard, to know their perspective matters.
- Increase engagement — The opportunity to contribute to the discussion encourages commitment.
Creating Space for Reflection
Bill found his reputation and influence improve as he embraced the next level mantra: ask more, tell less, teach when you can or must.
Take a moment to review the list of five reasons why asking open-ended questions is hard. Which do you identify with the most?
Which of the five benefits of asking open-ended questions resonates with you?
Think of a recent intense conversation. How would you edit the story to use open-ended questions?
Here’s to your next level of communication,
Image credit: Rak Tia via flickr