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Focus on these things to succeed in Workplace Communication Skills

Curiosity: Asking the Right Questions to Motivate, Manage & Lead


By Claire Laughlin, Consultant & Trainer, Leadership 4 Design

{#/pub/images/Curiosityadesiretoknoworlearn.jpg}Don’t you love the feeling of being curious? I associate it with awe, wonder, interest and spark. Imagine a company culture where this feeling exists at all levels, what a great tool to motivate, manage & lead employees. Unfortunately, as we develop our expertise and take on greater levels of responsibility, we often lose the natural instinct or ‘desire to know and learn’. There are three steps you can practice to develop this skill, but first it’s important to understand why it’s worth your time.


When we are children, curiosity is easy to come by. All things inspire curiosity. We are open to the natural world and to other people’s feelings, needs and experiences.


As we grow up, we learn that it is “knowledge,” not “questions” that earn us respect in most situations. So- curiosity competes with “expertise.” “Seeking” gives way to, “telling.” The learner and the expert go toe-to-toe in daily life.


In the business world, eager curiosity is often associated with being a “newbie.” If you are a newbie, then asking lots of questions is expected. But after a short time, questions can give the impression that we are unprepared or less knowledgeable than we should be. “Expertise” becomes the standard expectation, and it gently guides us toward being less open and less curious. (Less of a seeker, and more of a teller.) Do you remember thinking to yourself, “I can’t ask that question. I should already know the answer.” It is this pressure that convinces many of us to assert ourselves convincingly, even when we are unsure. We tell, when we should seek. 


Furthermore, as we gain power in the workplace, we are called upon to know more. This is to be expected. But, the collateral damage is often that we dampen our sense of curiosity (our desire to know or learn) in favor of becoming an expert.


Let me give you an example.

A newbie will ask, “Can you help me with this problem?” Or, “Why do we run the meetings like this?” Or, “who is that person in the sweater vest?” Or, “I don’t understand why we made the decision to use that vendor. Can you explain it to me?”


A few months later, that newbie (who is no longer a newbie) may be giving another newbie the answers.  “Of course I can provide guidance.” “We run the meetings like this because it has always been done this way.” “The guy in the sweater vest is the CEO’s nephew.” “We use that vendor because we have been buying their products since the 80s.” Questions are replaced with answers. The expert has replaced the learner.


This pattern translates across many roles and situations. In my work with supervisors and managers, they sometimes tell me that their teams look to them for direction. They say, “If I don’t provide answers, nothing gets done.” Or worse, “my people wait for me to tell them everything.” They believe that their expertise is indispensable, and that it saves, time, money and effort to simply give direction rather than to ask questions and seek solutions. “If I don’t provide answers,” they think, “someone else might, and I might lose my credibility and authority.”


Similarly, directors and executives tell me, “I am supposed to set the direction of the organization. I’d better have the answers because that’s what they are paying me for, right?”


The answer may well be, ‘yes,’ but there is a tremendous cost. What is lost when the “teller” wins out and the “seeker” gets buried?


First and foremost, when supervisors, managers, directors, and executives provide all the answers, new ideas and creative solutions get lost. If you tell me what to do, I will comply. But if you seek my expertise- if you ask me questions that require me to think, create and solve, then I can come up with a new solution, and our organization can evolve.


Further, motivation is wasted. Telling someone how to do something may provide the technical pathway that the person needs in order to complete the job, but it will not provide enough motivation to sustain the effort over the long haul. 


Finally, time is wasted. Most of my clients tell me, “I can’t afford the time to ask more questions. My business moves too fast. I just need to tell others what to do and get on with it.” While I can empathize with that feeling and I have succumbed to the pressure myself, I always say, “Pay now or pay later.” You may save some time up front by telling rather than seeking, but you will pay for that later when motivation wanes, ideas are not “fresh,” and people are not engaged.


I don’t know of any organization that will earn or keep it’s competitive advantage without harnessing the ideas, energy, talent and experiences of all of their people. The people at “the top” simply cannot be expected to provide all of the expertise that is required. It is a colossal waste of talent.


So- we know why it is so important to rely on our “inner seekers,” but sometimes we forget how.


Sure- it’s easy to cultivate our inner seekers during a Saturday trip to the museum, or in a role that we are unfamiliar with, or when there is plenty of time… but what about those other challenging situations? The ones in which we are convinced that we already know all there is to know? Like when we have to address a performance problem, or when we are locked in a dispute with someone else and our emotions run high? These situations pose challenges for our inner seekers. We find stability and comfort in being able to tell, command and direct rather than ask.


But there is hope. Practice the three habits described below, and you will find that your curiosity gets piqued and your inner seeker becomes much stronger.


Three Habits to Develop Your “Inner Seeker”


Step 1: Pause

When faced with a challenging situation. Train yourself to take 1 – 3 deep breaths. Check in with your body and your thoughts. Are you feeling tense or nervous? Are your thoughts racing? Are you desperately seeking ground to stand on? Then breathe again and remind yourself that you will be fine, even if you are not the expert.


Step 2: Ask One Question

My favorite isn’t really a question at all, but it helps tremendously. I always say, “tell me more about that.” This gives me a longer period of time to quiet my mind and to allow my natural curiosity to surface.  It allows my conversational partner to elaborate and provide more information, which helps ease the discomfort of the moment.


Step 3: Ask More Questions

Yes- it’s true. Ask one, and then ask more. Ask for clarification of details. Ask about the person’s feelings or interpretations. Ask about the implications of the situation. All of these questions give rise to our natural sense of curiosity and can put us in the right frame of mind to solve our problems with ease and creativity.


Cultivating our sense of curiosity can be very rewarding. It can spark awe, wonder and interest, and it can strengthen our relationships while broadening our experiences greatly. Give it a try! You won’t be sorry!


What do you think?  Do you approach situations with questions to empower your team to find the best solutions?  Or does your team accept the direction you set whenever a situation arises? 


{#/pub/images/ClaireLaughlin.jpg}Written by Claire Laughlin, Consultant & Trainer, Leadership 4 Design
As an independent consultant and trainer with 20 years of diverse experience, Claire Laughlin brings a passion for improving relationships, experience in management, and a relentless dedication to transformation to all of her work. She is fully committed to working with individuals, teams, and organizations as they learn and cultivate the habits and practices that make their organizational dynamics healthy and highly productive. Claire's experience spans Leadership to Communication Essentials to Project Management & Customer Service and has designed and taught over one hundred courses at over 60 organizations and seven different colleges and universities. In addition to her consultancy work, Clair directs Cabrillo College's Corporate Training Program.


Do you have a question for Claire?  Please visit our Workplace Communication Skills Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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