Questioning skills

Last week, management expert Don Andersson explained to us the difference between hearing and listening. Sure you hear what your employees are saying, but are you listening to them? There's a big difference.

Andersson suggests that after your employee (or anyone, for that matter) speaks, try to recap what the person said, making it clear you're just trying to ensure you really understood what they were trying to say. He suggests something like, "Here's what I've heard you say, tell me what I may have heard inaccurately." By showing your employees you're truly listening to them, you're really building- or reinforcing- a terrific working relationship.

"In the IT field, where there tends to be a language that is not necessarily understood by those not heavily involved in IT, that makes it even more important for [IT professionals] to make sure they're openly and nondefensively listening and probing to find out what the customer really is trying to accomplish," Andersson says.

One additional listening tip: If people start talking louder that's one indication that person doesn't feel like he or she has being listened to, Andersson says. "This can happen in a group or in a one-on-one conversations," he says. "Think about the times in which you've been involved in a conversation and either you or the other person started to raise your voice. Ask yourself, 'That voice was raised because...' "

Another key interaction you have with your staff is questioning them. But sometimes what you say may come out wrong, putting an employee on the defensive.

Most people tend to hunker down and automatically justify their actions. Yet if you used a phrase like, "You took this action, help me understand what you were trying to accomplish," that's a whole different approach.

"The real challenge is being able to figure out 'How do I ask a question that helps other people expand on the information they've already given me?' " Andersson says. "I do that by a question that does not indicate there's a preconceived [answer I'm] waiting for, but that I'm truly interested in hearing what they have to say, hearing what they have to say and hearing what they're not saying."

Andersson says it's important that through our questions we let people know we don't expect them to have all the right answers. "Really, it's more important to ask the appropriate questions than have all the answers," he says. "The right answers will find their way to the surface if you ask the right questions. This stuff is not rocket science but rather paying attention to what we do and how we do it so we can improve our capabilities and learning the disciplines."

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