I took a deep breath when the phone rang. It was coming from a senior working partner who had outsourced me to handle a certain client’s assignment. I had had a virtual meeting with the client a few hours earlier. In my assumption the meeting had gone well. The meeting convener had ended the meeting on a safe note with clear deliberations on the next step. A few hours later I got a phone call from one the firm’s senior manager. I had shared a document for their review and I thought this was a call to discuss the document’s content.
I was wrong. Her first statement was; “Rosemary, I am walking to the business development manager’s office we need to talk about something.” That comment was not alarming at all. It however raised my eyebrows when she said, “I am putting you on loud speaker, our procurement manager is also here and the supervisor who had convened the morning meeting is also here.” Before I could comprehend the agenda, she continued.
She noted that she was unhappy and regretful that the earlier meeting did not go as planned. Based on the feedback she got, the team did not have enough time to share their thoughts and this did not paint a good picture hence jeopardizing the team’s acceptability of the project. What I found interesting is that the supervisor who had convened the meeting did not have anything to say in that conference call. In her words, “the issue is as expressed by my boss.”
I reiterated the discussion from the meeting and I even referred to the E mail I had sent immediately after the meeting. The meeting convener had actually acknowledged the E mail with a note to get back before end of day. As it turns out the other managers were not aware of the E mail. The procurement manager was however quick to pick the cues. He requested me to drop off the call as they discuss further.
In less than five minutes my senior partner called. I knew he must have taken the team’s wrath on my ‘mishandling’ the meeting. He was however amazingly calm. For a moment I thought he had no idea what was going on but the calls coincidence said it all. “Hey Rosemary, have you talked with the client?” He asked. “Yes I have” I responded, “How did it go?” He asked.
The tactfulness in the questions is what amazes me. Irrespective of the information shared, he chose to hear my version of the story first. This is different from the client who got information and automatically put me on a conference call with a whole panel. After a long conversation my senior partner he concluded, “you realize these are corporate fights, they are addressing one of them and using you to settle scores. Just give a personal call to each separately later and use your wisdom to agree on a way forward.” True to his observation, when I later called one of the managers, the atmosphere had totally shifted. They were now fast tracking to review my document. I got a go ahead for the assignment first thing the following day.
My senior partner’s calmness and ability to handle political situations has always amazed me. He reminded me of a concept that I teach; The power of asking questions. I use it to respond to team leaders who struggle to manage intelligent employees. Employees who are smart but not good at taking feedback. They either rubbish it or use their intelligence to rationalize their actions. The mistake we make with such people is telling instead of asking.
If you tell someone that he is wrong the natural instinct is to defend themselves. That’s the difference between telling someone, ‘You did this wrong’ instead of asking ‘What happened here or what made you do it this way?’ The first statement triggers defense while the latter statements give room for an explanation and discussion.
Right questioning, allows you to;
- Suspend judgment – My client must have felt embarrassed when she realized that the perception given was far from reality. Judgement as mentioned leads to defense and blocks any room for discussion. The idea is to shift from who is wrong to what is wrong.
- Creates ownership and accountability – Asking the right questions makes the person unravel the gaps by himself/herself. This makes it easy for someone to own mistakes and hold himself accountable to doing the right thing.
- Avoids blame game – The last word you want to start with when giving feedback is “You”. The moment someone feels pointed at; they feel judged. The natural reaction to judgement is to shift blame to something or someone else.
- Provides clarity – Telling or blaming someone makes the assumption that you know the truth about what happened and why it happened. Most of the time our perspective feels justified until you hear the other side of the story. Asking questions allows you to get the other angle on the issue.
- Solution oriented – Pinpointing mistakes mostly feels like just a chance to give someone ‘a piece of your mind.’ It’s an opportunity to vent and display emotions. On the other hand, asking questions seeks to understand with an intention of getting a mutually agreed solution.
“If you want to change results change questions because great questions unlock insights.”
Photo by PNW Production: https://www.pexels.com/photo/men-having-a-business-meeting-at-the-office-8276636/