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Communication: Getting to the Nitty Gritty

Next time you ask what could be considered a loaded question (“How’s your workload?” “Are you busy?” “How’s your marketing going?”), listen carefully to the responses. Nearly all of them will be exceptionally brief answers, usually something like “fine”, “sure, I’m busy”, and the like. The responses may be only the very tip of the iceberg, because they are consciously or unconsciously designed to end the conversation as quickly as possible.

As department managers or practice group leaders, particularly if you are a senior member of your firm, it is easy to forget how stressful daily life is for team members. When you ask questions, particularly in a group setting, your colleagues are painfully aware that you are asking from a management viewpoint. As a result, they may be reluctant to tell you how they’re really doing in any given situation. It’s just too risky, in their view.

Effective leaders know this, and they work hard to create ongoing conversations that will reduce the implied threat of supervisory-type questions. They use casual conversation with employees or colleagues as a means of building trust and opening the path to honest communication. They create an environment of safety and trust. The smartest and most courageous leaders ask questions that will elicit an emotional response (as opposed to simply cerebral), and they listen for what isn’t said as much as for what is.

Next time you really want to know something about an individual’s situation or want to get a more in-depth response than usual, try making broad-based requests that elicit more broad-based answers. For example, instead of asking “how’s your workload?” or “are you busy?”, say “please tell me about your workload and how you’re doing with it.” Ask them what current assignments are most interesting to them and why. Instead of asking how someone’s marketing is going, ask them larger questions such as “What’s the best thing going on right now in your marketing? What’s the toughest challenge?”

And the very best leaders I know always end a conversation with the most important question: “How can I help?”.

Bottom line: move from a the reportorial tone in your department or practice group to a conversational one, and you will get more useful information.

© Melinda Guillemette 2009