Say Less, Ask More

Updated: Jun 15, 2020

A Conversational Guide

My leadership journey was a gift. It challenged me and pitted me against my worst fears and my biggest demons. My ego was severely tested throughout my leadership journey. For reasons I didn't fully understand, I was under the impression that I had to come up with great ideas and get people to implement them and to deliver the goods. When questions arose, I believed I had to know the answers. When people asked 'What's the vision?' I actually thought it was exclusively up to me to conjure it and describe it. Good grief! Was I the oracle? It was just too much! I was high strung, exhausted, lonely, afraid and defensive. At home, I was no fun ... when I eventually did go home.

Whose bright idea was it to give me this bloody job? Goodness knows I didn't apply for it. I was a specialist for heaven's sake! What the hell was I doing 'leading' people!!!

As you can imagine, I stank at my job. I was defeated!

Then I got a coach. My areas of accountability went from the lowest engagement ratings to the highest. The highest by far. My areas went from being reknown for duds to becoming a talent shopping mall.

I want to mention, that shortly before I was appointed to my leadership role, I had participated in a team session where I confided in the facilitator that 'I don't do people kak'! Little did I know that she'd become my coach, my mentor and one of the biggest guides and influencers in my life.

Little did i know that 'People kak' would become the ONLY thing I wanted to do! The universe sure has a sense of humour.

Anyway, working with my coach, I learned a great many things. There are a few I'd like to share here:

  • The idea that leadership is strategy and presentations and fancy things with big words come at a great cost. The most awe-inspiring vision, the most focused mission, and the most detailed, comprehensive strategy are guaranteed to amount to nothing without the ability to mobilise and inspire your team to bring it to life. Without the latter, you either have diddly-squat or a Frankensteinian solution that might cost even more than diddly-squat.

  • The most important thing for me to focus on was to lead myself. She worked with me to work with my inner game and to establish the real personal and leadership principles and boundaries that would allow me to thrive. If I was not steady within myself, there was no foundation upon which to develop solid, trusting, principled relationships with others.

  • That a primary leadership responsibility is the cultivation and nurturing of trust. Even the greatest ideas and talent are consigned to mediocrity in the absence of high trust. Resurrecting trust was a fine balance between a great number of things. In the end, it pivoted on two things, i.e. how steady I was within myself, and how well the environment was set up to facilitate communication.

  • Communication skills were a lot less about speaking. It was about creating space for diverse ideas, opinions, perspectives, and expertise to flourish. With me, as well as other leaders in our space constantly yapping away, demonstrating our value and making pronouncements, we were stifling communication. We were effectively farming stagnation and destruction. We were also misdiagnosing so many issues, and with each misdiagnosis, our credibility dwindled and trust evaporated. And so, with my fellow leaders, I learned to listen. It wasn't easy. It still isn't. I learned to bite my tongue, and to draw out the opinions and perspectives and recommendations of others; who in reality did know better. I smile as I recall practicing the breathing exercises I had taken on board. I had used these to hold back the bazillion thoughts and ideas bouncing around in my mind. I held on tightly to the mantra 'W.A.I.T.' Why am I talking?

  • As a leader, I had to become a facilitator. Armed with steadiness within, a willingness to listen and a hearty appetite for learning, I cultivated the ability to use questions to draw out really fascinating contributions. Brain science helped to understand what to do to avoid setting off fear responses and how to stimulate creativity and even courage.

  • The carrot and stick can work for sure. As long as you are there holding the carrot and the stick. Without you holding either, you have nothing.

So, I learned about communication. Within all of this, I learned about the how's of empowering people, and empowering myself. I learned about listening and about giving up the idea that I was the solitary source of knowledge, wisdom, answers, and leadership itself.

At the epicenter of all I had learned, is that leadership happens in EACH and EVERY communication you as a leader participates in. EACH and EVERY single one. Your team members are scanning every nuance with which you show up to see whether they are safe, whether they are not; whether their ideas are welcome or not; when your ideas trump theirs and when you will be open to theirs; whether they have a voice; whether they do not; who in the team in has value, who does not. Your every move intersects with all their needs as described in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Any perception that their needs might not be met, will result in the contraction or ultimately in the withdrawal of their discretionary effort.

And ironically, as I learned these self-leadership and these communication and empowerment skills, I discovered more time in my day. As I realised that I didn't have to be the bright spark with all the ideas, I learned to let go, and I learned to make space for co-creation. Through co-creation, the burden for coming up with the big stuff was distributed. And with the burden distributed, ownership was also distributed. I could put the carrot and the stick away.

A while back, I came across The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier. I've since acquired the book in Audio and hard copy to accompany my original soft copy. It is the codification of so much of what I learned. In it is the essence of how each conversation is a tool for shaping momentum; for placing responsibility and accountability where it belongs; for creating an environment that nurtures courage and innovation; and ultimately, that creates that learning culture that everyone strives for but doesn't quite manage to create.

The book was written for managers to help them be better leaders, communicate more effectively with team members, provide better support and coaching and so have more impact. Achieving this comes down to seven key questions that the author identifies as the essence of leading. Through these 7 questions, the manager allows accountability and responsibility for tasks to be thought through and to be properly assigned.

I believe, though, that these seven questions can be an effective technique in any relationship that requires communication, be it business or personal.

When speaking to customers these seven questions can help you get to the bottom of what the problem really is and how you can help.

The same applies to consulting. The best form of consulting pivots around gathering information and securing buy-in to the solution. This formula gives you those questions to allow you to guide the conversation and have your client come to the same conclusion you have just advised them on, but this way they own the solution and is more committed to the inevitable tribulations that arise during execution.  

Looking at internal communications, issues in the way organisations run often arise because of miscommunication, especially when you work in a bigger or global company. It's natural that we as individuals tend to assume things to fit our agendas and like to provide advice to appear as experts but leading and functioning as a business requires empathy and opening up to the others you're speaking to, their challenges, their thoughts and ideas. 

Question-asking has tremendous benefits in communications so I want to show you those seven questions today to try and use them in any business conversation. I've presented them into an infographic that you can easily download or print out. Along with the infographic, I've created a video that talks you through the 7 questions and the brain science behind it.

There's no right. there's no wrong. There is just learning. You don't need to start with all of them. Just pick one and practice it until you get comfortable with it and it becomes a part of your day-to-day vocabulary. Then move on to the next one. In time to come, you wont regret it.

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