The art of questioning and listening: a powerful combination for managers

27th April by Karen Smart

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One of the topics we talked about last month was the challenges facing leaders and managers in the new hybrid era and it raises a question for me – has the art of communication been lost since the pandemic?

In today’s fast-paced business climate, effective communication is more vital than ever. As a manager, your ability to get the best from your team members is essential. But in what has turned into a minefield, some managers have been left asking how they can communicate best in a meaningful and seamless way when team members are seldom in the same place at the same time.

The art of communication begins with good questioning

Effective communication skills are sadly still one of those aspects of management hiring decisions that goes unchecked.

The accidental manager is one such by-product of not training people properly when it comes to promoting high-potential employees into management roles. The promise shown in how well somebody does in the technical side of their job does not necessarily translate into how well they will perform when it comes to being responsible for others.

We need our managers to be equipped with strong interpersonal skills and as a starter that encompasses being able to ask good questions so that they can get the best of the people around them.

Coaching has become an increasingly popular approach to managing people in the workplace. It is a collaborative, non-hierarchical way of managing that empowers employees to take ownership of their own development and growth. At the heart of coaching is the art of questioning and this is one of the secrets to strong management. Good questions help managers to better understand their colleagues’ needs, motivations and perspectives and help them to develop their skills and achieve their goals.

One of the fundamental principles of coaching is that the coach should ask open-ended questions that encourage the coachee to explore their thoughts and feelings and find their own solutions. Closed questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no don’t provide the same opportunity for reflection and growth.

Open-ended questions invite people to share more information and provide more context. They encourage people to think more deeply and creatively. Examples of good open-ended questions a coach manager might ask their colleagues are:

What motivates you in your work?

What would you like to be doing more/less of?

These examples are helpful in encouraging the colleague to think about what it is that drives them and makes them passionate about the work they do. At the same time it helps the manager understand what it is that makes them tick so they can find ways of tapping into that resource, those strengths and help them perform at their best.

For managers who want to support their team members to be more resourceful and deliver against specific projects, questions to consider asking include:

What would make the biggest difference to you in your job?

What are your goals for this project and what steps can you take to achieve them?

What does success look like?

This type of questioning unlocks new thinking, inspires brainstorming, as well as highlighting obstacles that could be blocking a successful outcome. For the manager, it shows a willingness to collaborate. It also helps uncover areas where that team member may need help and enables the manager to provide tailored support so they can overcome the challenges they face and deliver on the goals set for them.

Managers need to be great listeners too

Asking superior quality questions is just one part of the equation. The partner to being a good questioner is to be a good listener too.

This is a skill that may sound simple, but it is not that easy. Listening is a quality that you have complete control of, but how many of us truly listen to what the other person is saying when they talk to us? We hear them, but are we fully understanding and engaging with them? And hearing what is not being said and what their body is saying.

Managers need to be just as thoughtful and attentive to others as they are to the voice in their own head. As Patrick King says in the great book How to Listen with Intention: “listening well requires you to suspend your own self-interest and ego and gracefully allow someone else to shine.”

When it comes to appraisals or conversations around performance and development, managers should stop thinking about their response in the future and focus their attention on what the other person is saying to them. Good listeners are able to stay in the moment and practice what Patrick King labels conversational empathy, as meaningful conversations are about so much more than the literal words being spoken.

Active listening is promoted as a core coaching skill. It is also a critical component of coaching style management as it helps managers to develop stronger relationships with their colleagues and to cultivate an environment where people feel heard and understood. It involves concentrating on what the speaker is saying as well as paying attention to their verbal and non-verbal cues.

Just as with asking good questions, when managers actively listen, they are better able to understand the context and nuances of their team members’ experiences, needs and goals. They are also able to build that all important trust and rapport with their colleagues as people feel valued and respected when they are listened to attentively.

By using a coaching style of asking better questions and being a better listener, coach managers can build stronger relationships with their team members whilst helping them to develop their skills, achieve their goals and ultimately create a far more productive and fulfilling working environment. These are two simple, but incredibly powerful tools for a coaching manager.

By adopting a coaching style of management which champions questioning and listening skills, managers can turn the tide and create a positive work environment that fosters creativity, closeness, innovation and growth. This approach not only benefits employees, but it also helps managers achieve their business objectives by empowering their team members to perform at their best.