Talk Talk Talk

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Summary:

Managers need to talk about goals, strategy, and mission. Managers need to talk about how daily work keeps the business humming. Esther writes about how important it is for managers to also ask questions and listen.

I recently observed a manager meeting with a team member. The manager gave the low-down on a leadership change at the top of the company, speculated on the economy, described his plans for the future, and detailed his mother's heart attack.

At the end of the meeting, the manager smiled at the team member and said, "Keep up the good work. You're doing a great job!"

How would he know?

The team member barely got a word in edgewise, and certainly didn't have an opportunity to describe what he was working on.

Watch the Conversational Balance
In a social situation, a 50/50 balance between talking and listening feels comfortable. But management conversations are different. Managers need to understand how people are working, and where they need help. Managers need to understand the status of work, risks, and obstacles. The manager described above talked 95 percent of the time and listened 5 percent of the time. 30 percent talking and 70 percent listening is a more appropriate balance for management conversations.

Prime the Pump
Aiming for a 30/70 balance doesn't mean you sit there silently and wait for the other person to fill the silence. Nor does it mean that you need to listen to a rambling monologue that doesn't provide the information you need to do your management job.

Hone your questioning skills to help you explore the work and understand your team members. Ask open-ended questions, questions that invite expansion, to draw out relevant information. Open-ended questions often start with "What" or "How".

Some of the questions I find useful in starting conversations with team members are:

  • What's going well?
  • What's keeping you up at night?
  • What obstacles are you running into?
  • How did you approach the ____________ issue we discussed last week?
  • Tell me about your work on __________.

Ask probing questions to gain further insight:

  • What else?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • What's behind that?
  • What else have you tried?
  • What other information would be helpful?

Closed questions often start with "Can", "Do", "Are" or "Is." Closed questions naturally lead to a one-word answer. A steady stream of closed questions feels like an interrogation: use closed questions when you want to confirm specific information.

  • Did you check with Fred on that?
  • Did you try the transaction under load?

Avoid "Why?" Questions
Of course, you want to know why, but asking "Why?" isn't always the best way to find out. "Why?" questions put people on the defensive. Try asking questions that start with "How" or "What" to understand the reasons behind an action, approach, or decision.

  • How did you arrive at that conclusion?
  • What factors did you consider?

Ask One Question at a Time
I once sat in on a planning session where the leader started by asking a series of questions—eight of them. "Well, what are your answers?" he asked, looking expectantly at the dazed group. No one knew where to start. Should they start with the first question? The last? Some where in the middle?

Compound questions have the same effect:

"How are you doing on the performance tests—and are we getting anywhere with the memory leak - or is Ted handling that now, and is he able to work independently on that or is Sally helping him and how is that effecting the load testing?"

If you really want answers, ask one question at a time, and then wait for an answer.

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular StickyMinds.com and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at www.estherderby.com and on her weblog at www.estherderby.com/weblog/blogger.html. Her email is derby@estherderby.com.

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