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Feedback & The Power Of Listening

April 13, 2022, 5-min. read
Feedback & The Power Of Listening

That the power of questions is great, no mentor, coach, or those involved in the development of others can doubt. Questions develop our thinking, help us to look at things from different perspectives, help us to examine things in the context of new information, and to be more proactive in thinking about alternatives and action plans. 

Scientists have even experimentally verified that questions help to improve self-insight, openness to the opinions of others, and objectivity. 

In the experiments, people who had the opportunity to present and confront their ideas to attentive listeners asking questions not only felt more confident and determined to present these concepts further afterward, but also had a much more realistic view of the pros and risks of their views, being open to other possibilities.

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And that is exactly what we need when we give feedback. If we do it unilaterally, more in the form of a monologue, the other party tends to get closed to listening. Surprisingly enough, even in the case of positive feedback. Because if our feedback is different from how the other person perceives themselves, then the feedback is more likely to put them off. It is difficult to accept and may even be actively resisted. Moreover, one-sided feedback highlights the status inequality - "I am the boss, and therefore I am the one who says what is true."

But feedback is not meant to be an argument proving who is right. Moreover, no one is right. Feedback is information about how someone else perceives a given situation and is meant to bring inspiration, not a rehash. It is only natural that different people perceive things differently. Everyone has a different role, different experiences, different reasons, and different backgrounds for that matter.  

So if we try to use questions instead of a one-sided presentation of our opinion in feedback, the conversation can take on a completely different dynamic. Why?

  • Questions show that we are interested in the other person, that we want to know their point of view, that we care about them.
  • Questions can help us to understand the situation better, to know the reasons and background why the other person acted a certain way.
  • By asking good questions, we can work together with the other person to find truly workable and fitting solutions to their situation, not ones that would work for us alone in our situation.

The pandemic has, of course, changed previously understood and promoted work-life balances completely.

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  • Questions develop others' thinking about the situation and, if we don't push or rush, often lead to the spontaneous generation of ideas about what to do.
  • Questions turn an unequal SUPERVISOR vs. SUBORDINATE relationship into a true partnership - we are partners and have a common interest - we want to be successful.

Unfortunately, despite the awareness and popularity of coaching, managers don't use questions much. There may be a mix of the following reasons behind this:

  • Managers believe that if they say something, it will happen,
  • managers believe that if they give feedback, the other person will automatically accept it and act on it,
  • managers believe that if they listen, they might be seen as weak and incompetent - they are there to tell what should be done and how it should be done, not to ask questions,
  • managers are afraid of not being in control,
  • managers believe they don't have time to listen,
  • and besides, those who ask, learn too much...

In addition, the fact that managers have often grown into a managerial role by being capable, smart & efficient plays a crucial role. And indeed they could do many things better, easier or faster than their people. But that doesn't mean that the solutions that work for themselves would work for their people. The coaching approach is based on the idea that everyone knows their own options, circumstances & limits the best and is, therefore, most competent to find the best solution. 

Of course, there are situations where people can't see a solution. They don't have the necessary perspective, they are stuck, in the grip of assumptions or presumptions, under pressure. As long as our thoughts remain in our heads, it can be a messy mess in which we look for shortcuts. Only when we have to formulate and translate them into words do they take on order, shape & structure. 

Feedback & the power of listening

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And that's the role of a manager - a coach who helps by asking questions to gradually sort our thoughts, think through the options, and choose the best one. 

But beware of a common mistake. Managers know they should ask questions, but because they subconsciously don't want to give up the role of the one who runs and controls things, they sometimes formulate their questions in a leading or closed way ("Wouldn't it be better to...?", "What if you...?", "Have you tried...?"). As a result, although they use questions, they push, manipulate and impose their opinions on others. People leave such conversations frustrated, leaving executive coaching with an unfairly bad reputation. 

And what are the right questions to ask? 

Short, simple, non-deterministic answers. Inquiring and thought-provoking on the part of the partner ("What do you expect from this?", "What are the risks?", "Why this?", "What else can you do?"). A good question is not meant to satisfy curiosity on the part of the questioner, but to help the person being asked.

A final piece of advice. If you are afraid of the answer or don't want to admit other possibilities, then don't ask and just say what and how it should be. Only ask questions where you are prepared to respect the answers and work with them...

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