“If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.” – Mark Twain.
Michael Bungay Stanier, in his entertaining and easy-to-digest book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, outlines the formula for asking great questions that allow you to practice your listening habit. There are seven questions in all, and the first three can easily keep you engaged in a great conversation.
The Kickstart Question
“What’s on your mind?” This question focuses the discussion on whatever is top of mind for the person you want to listen to. Instead of providing the subject, you provide the opportunity for them to bring issues to the forefront – issues you may have been unaware of or had incorrectly ranked as less important.
The AWE Question
AWE stands for “and what else?” and might be the most important question in the listener’s toolkit. Whatever the Kickstart revealed is superficial compared to the AWE. AWE allows you to go deeper in the conversation.
The Focus Question
“What’s the real challenge here for you?” I am always surprised at how far this question allows the speaker to flesh out their thinking. Without any advice from the coach, the speaker begins to identify and solve their own most critical issues. And because the ideas are coming from them, they are more likely to follow the advice.
Bellrock attended a conference with about a dozen clients where Stanier led the entire audience through this questioning process. We were paired with strangers and told to ask the Kickstart question and then cycle through the AWE and Focus questions for about five minutes. By far, the most difficult part of the exercise was holding back on offering advice as the questioner. No statements, no advice – you have three questions you can choose from and that’s it. Experiencing the act of holding your tongue for five minutes demonstrates clearly how good or poor a listener you really are. Take this article to your next management meeting and use 10 minutes of your agenda to give it a try. You will not be disappointed.
If you pick up Stanier’s book (and you should) you’ll get four more questions that complete the coaching toolkit (we can’t give away all of his secrets here!). More listening and less advising aids in employee development, offers greater context for decision-making, and ultimately improves overall business performance. But as with most great leadership skills, listening takes practice. The good news? It’s quite simple to learn. Try these questions and let us know how it goes.
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