4 Ways to Have More Curious Conversations

We can all think of a time when we had a conversation that didn’t go well and how it made us feel. Perhaps you felt that the person wasn’t really listening or paying attention to you, that your feelings were minimised or discounted, that you weren’t able to speak up and say what you were really thinking, or that everything you said was rejected, defended or opposed. Maybe someone came away feeling like that after conversation with you.

According to research by Stanford University, 90% of our conversations are missing the mark. This directly impacts on employee engagement which costs the UK economy £340 billion every year as a result of sick days, lost productivity, creativity and innovation and training and recruitment costs. Poor conversations trigger a little less engagement, a little less productivity, a little less loyalty, a little less connection and a little less speaking up. At first it might not seem obvious. Yet it builds and can add up to significant losses and no organisation has money to waste.

And that’s of course when we actually have the conversation.

In a recent study by LeaderFactor, 82% of people said they had worked in a dangerously nice culture where niceness got in the way of engagement, accountability and performance. This can show up as avoiding a conversation altogether, or delaying it because of perceived busyness. Frequency and consistency of communication is as important as the quality and if the conversation isn’t happening at all, it can be disastrous.

All results swim in the sea of relationships which are directly impacted by the quality of the conversations that take place in our organisations. When we know how to have more curious and effective conversations we can dramatically improve our relationships. Staying curious for longer gives us the space for opportunities, enables us to discover different perspectives and experiences, challenge the status quo, collaborate, understand and exceed the needs of clients and support ourselves and others to stretch and grow.

When we fail to be curious we can get stuck in a cycle of judging, blaming and shaming where we are right and the other person is wrong.

What stops us from being more curious? According to author and thought leader Michael Bungay-Stainer, the ability and power of staying curious a little bit longer isn’t intrinsic in most people.

He says that the behaviour change of giving less advice and asking more questions is surprisingly difficult. This is because we are taught to believe we can only add value if we have the answer and when we are telling we are in control of the situation. Asking questions makes us feel less certain about how useful we are being, and the conversation feels slower. And if we are working in an environment that is biased towards action, this can feel even more uncomfortable.

Bungay-Stainer suggest the power lies with staying curious for longer and saying, ‘I don’t know.’

Whilst this sounds easy enough, many of us don’t know how to have curious conversations or value the role they can play in helping us achieve success, especially during times of uncertainty. Added to this, how do you break the cycle and sell the idea to someone who has had a successful career and been rewarded for telling others what to do that giving up knowing the answers is worth it?

In our work with leaders they often say one of their biggest challenges is that their team keep coming to them for their advice, agreement or help in solving problems. This leaves them feeling frustrated and overwhelmed and the team member stuck in a cycle of helplessness and dependence.

When we can, as Bungay-Stainer says, stay curious for longer, we can work less hard, have more impact, build engagement, empowerment and achieve better results.

So what can you do to have more curious conversations with the people in your work and life?

1.Check your assumptions

It’s all too easy to make assumptions when human nature means we fill in the blanks to complete information about a situation that impacts us. We fill it with own interpretation of what we see and hear based on similar past experiences, making connections that might not exist. When you layer this with emotions, those assumptions can be wrong and worse still may not be kind.

If you’ve ever met someone new before, you’ll know how easy this can be. We take in details about the person – their looks, clothing, body language, even details like their name and job title. We somehow find ourselves building up an idea of someone we haven’t gotten to know yet.

Sometimes our assumptions are helpful, mostly they are unhelpful and unproductive, allowing us to hide behind our own version of the story.

When we’ve been working with people for some time, we can expect them to understand and know what we mean, even when it’s not clear. As if they have suddenly become mind readers! That’s why we can get so easily disappointed when our communications with people don’t go well. If you’ve ever heard yourself imposing ‘should words’ such as ‘they should have known that they had to…’ then you are putting expectations onto people about something you need to make clearer.

Next time you hear yourself saying ‘should’, think about what questions you need to ask to make sure it’s clearer for the other person. Make it an expectation that others need to ask questions and after you have expressed your thinking, ask the other person, “What do you think?” or “What is your takeaway from what I have said?”

In a difficult conversation it becomes even more important to check our assumptions before stepping into it with the other person because we spend much of our time struggling with our stories about who is right, who meant what and who is to blame. When we are stuck to our own point of view and not curious about the other person, we are basing our conversation on the premise that we are right and the other person is wrong.

What am I right about? I am right that you are less experienced than me and don’t really know what you’re doing. I’m right that I’m more senior than you, so I have the better answer. I am right that you work too slow and need to speed up. I am right that that’s the way you have to do that, not the way you are doing it. I am right that you should know that’s what is expected of you and be able to do it. I’m right that you talk too much and need to work on how you communicate.

Difficult conversations are always about conflicting values, interpretations, perspectives and judgments. We can never know the intentions of the other person because they are invisible and complex. The trouble is when we don’t know we often make the assumption the person has bad intentions, meanwhile we tell ourselves our own intentions are good.

The majority of the work in any difficult conversation is the work you do on yourself first.

Ask yourself:

· Where does the story I’m telling myself about this come from? (information, facts, past experiences, rules, expectations?). Where does theirs comes from?

· What impacts has this situation had on you? What might their intentions have been?

· What have you each contributed to this problem? What have you been avoiding until now? How approachable are you? What might stop people raising things with you?

· What are the intersections of difference between you? (Background, personality, strengths, preferences, communication style, assumptions about the relationship?)

· What problematic role assumptions might you have been making from this situation? (For example ‘I am the leader’ or ‘I have the most experience’)

· What emotions are you experiencing about this? What’s at stake for you here? What do you need to accept to be better grounded for the situation? (Source, Difficult Conversations : How to Discuss What Matters Most, Bruce Patton & Douglas Stone)

By asking more curious questions of yourself first, you can move away from assumptions and shift your purpose from being right to understanding how someone else is seeing the world. We can’t assume our emotions are share and your priorities are likely to be different from someone else’s.

2. Ask more open questions

Open questions – those that start with who, what, where, when and how – are powerful. They can focus intelligence on the right problems and help us to stay curious for longer, rather than jumping in at the first opportunity to give our opinion before identifying what the real issue is for the other person.

Closed questions, those that can be answered with a yes or no, are often statements that are hidden as questions where you are in control and can end up solving the problem yourself. For example ‘have you thought about…can you try…’. They can be leading, and you don’t want the person on the receiving end to feel they are being interrogated or pushed into a confession on the witness stand.

Almost any closed question can be made open by adding “how,” “what,” “which,” “who”, “when” at the beginning. When you start with open-ended questions you are seeking to understand what’s going on and is important to the other person, which also builds connection. In his book ‘The Coaching Habit’ Bungay-Stainer outlines 7 questions aimed at getting managers to coach in 10 minutes or less.

1. The Kickstart Question: What’s on your mind?

2. The AWE Question: And what else?

3. The Focus Question: What’s the real challenge here for you?

4. The Foundation Question: What do you want?

5. The Lazy Question: How can I help?

6. The Strategic Question: If you’re saying ‘yes’ to this, what are you saying ‘no’ to?

7. The Learning Question: What was most useful for you?

While each of these questions can be asked on their own, when you use them in this order they can help to create deeper and more powerful conversations. For example, the Kickstart Question puts the spotlight onto the other person and what it is they want to talk about, whilst the AWE questions goes deeper to uncover what the main challenge is.

Leaders can often feel reluctant to ask the Lazy Question ‘how can I help’ for fear of it creating even more work for them. Yet it helps the person on the receiving end of the question to put the issue into perspective and understand what they need to support them.

What about questions beginning with ‘why’? Whilst they can have their place in certain situations it can lead our lazy brains to mislead us and put us into a victim mentality and confirmation bias. ‘Why’ draws us to our limitations, whereas in comparison ‘what’ questions helps us to see our potential. Think about the emotions a question beginning with ‘why’ can stir up – they tend to be negative and can trap us in our past. In comparison, a ‘what’ question keeps us curious and focused on the future.

3. Say less and listen more

When it comes to listening, many of us think it’s something we’re good at yet in reality what we’re good at is waiting for our turn to speak. With the average human having no more than an 8 second attention span, it can be difficult to be aware and intentional especially when there are so many competing demands. We approach conversations based on our own goals and agenda, which means we are thinking about ourselves, not the other person.

When we’re really listening we are doing it with the intent to understand, not simply do respond. It’s a fundamental leadership quality that needs practice and patience together with an openness to being influenced. Whilst you’re listening, you’re not imposing your views on the other person, or trying to figure out how to get them to see it your way. Instead your suspending your opinions long enough to step into the world of the other person and understand it from their point of view.

If you try and short cut the listening process and jump right to responding, emotions often heat up quickly. As Stephen Covey said, ‘with people fast is slow and slow is fast.’ The time you take to listen to another person pays off. You can’t empathise, learn or grow when you’re talking because you’re focused on yourself and not who or what’s around you.

With listening one of the most powerful tools there is to build a quality relationship, both personally and professionally, what can we do to become better listeners? In their HBR article ‘What Great Listeners Actually Do’, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman say that great listening comes down to 3 things:

– Not talking when others are speaking

– Letting others know you are listening through facial expressions and verbal sounds

– Being able to repeat what others have said

They describe 6 levels of listening that build on each other:

Level 1: The listener creates a safe environment where difficult, complex, or emotional issues can be discussed.

Level 2: The listener clears away distractions like phones and laptops so they can focus their attention on the other person and make appropriate eye-contact.

Level 3: The listener seeks to understand what the other person is saying. They capture ideas, ask questions, and restate what the other person has said to confirm that their understanding is correct.

Level 4: The listener observes non-verbal cues, like facial expressions, gestures, posture, and numerous other subtle body language signals. They listen with their eyes as well as your ears.

Level 5: The listener increasingly understands the other person’s emotions and feelings about the topic at hand, and identifies and acknowledges them. The listener empathizes with and validates those feelings in a supportive, non-judgmental way.

Level 6: The listener asks questions that clarify assumptions the other person holds and helps the other person to see the issue in a new light. This could include the listener injecting some thoughts and ideas about the topic that could be useful to the other person.

Zenger and Folkman say that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone who gives you energy, acceleration, height and amplification. These are the hallmarks of great listening.

4. Be intentional

You might be reading this thinking this will never work. If you’re a leader maybe you think your team will never stop coming to you for the answers. That they expect you, the leader, to know and tell rather than be more curious with them. That’s your job, after all. Or maybe your someone has tried everything to listen better, yet still can’t switch off that internal chatter or interruption habit.

Perhaps you’re thinking that if you try some of these things out you’ll be met with some surprise and resistance (most likely) and that’s part of creating a new habit. Back when we started riding a bike we fell off, yet we learnt what needed to be adjusted so next time we could stay on a little longer.

In his research into high performers, author Brendon Blanchard found that what they have in common is that they are curious and ask questions and are intentional about creating positive social interactions with others.

The things that matter most to your performance might seem like commons sense, yet they are not common practice, so set some clear and compelling intentions for how you will be more curious in your conversations. Because when you become intentional, it’s almost impossible to simply go through the motions.

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