How To Ask—And Listen—Like You Mean It

Leaders who are helping others to grow and innovate are always trying to craft the best questions to make a difference. Here's how to ask the questions that will propel your team and your organization forward.

Questions are the expressive, probing language for growing others; listening is the receptive, facilitating language for growing others. These two complementary approaches form a continuous growth conversation loop. The deeper the questions, the deeper the listening; the deeper the listening, the deeper the next question. As we dig together with each tool, we mutually excavate new discoveries. As a result, the learning is never one-sided; it is a co-created process that engenders empathy, trust, and collaboration.

The Power Of Authentic Questions

Innovators working on solving problems and coming up with creative solutions rely on crafting the right questions. Leaders who are helping others to grow and innovate are always trying to craft the best questions to make a difference. Not only do innovators make asking questions an integral part of their lives, and ask more questions than non-innovators, they also ask more provocative ones--questions that provoke deep insight and understanding. Developing other leaders through questioning not only helps them grow, but it forces them to own their unique learning experiences.

Imagine yourself in your next team meeting. Observe and check your impulses to be the expert, the problem solver, or the holder of the most seasoned experiences and perspectives. See yourself using questions more to:

  • Challenge yourself to look at solutions from a different point of view.
  • Stay in the state of curiosity longer to sort out where others are coming from.
  • Probe deeper into motivations, perspectives, and experiences.
  • Bring the "unspeakable" question to the surface.
  • Challenge the status quo to move the conversation to the next level.
  • Build on what is being said and take it one or two steps further.
  • Engage with people at a deeper level.
What would be the impact to your team and organization if you leveraged the power of questions more? What would happen if you used your drive, analytical capabilities, and intelligence to help others to grow versus having the answers and solving the problems?

The Power of Authentic Listening


Following an extended period of international travel and organizational stress, an extremely self-confident, expressive senior executive lost her voice. She didn't just have a common cold; she had full-blown laryngitis. Unable to speak for 60+ days, she was forced to step back and listen. Her perception of her team changed radically. She saw her staff much more involved, expressive, and creative. Discussions were more uninhibited, free flowing, and creatively productive. Over time, she found that even her contributions of flip chart scribbles occasionally got in the way. "Listening showed me a way to do less but accomplish more. My team understands my vision, expectations, and values. I realize that what I need to do is discipline myself now to listen more and interfere less."

Questions without authentic listening are thinly veiled challenges, judgments, and assertions; challenging questions with authentic listening activates latent power, potential, and collaboration.

How often do we pause to be genuinely present with someone? How often do we really hear what the other person is saying and feeling versus filtering it heavily through our own immediate concerns and time pressures? Authentic listening is not easy. We hear the words, but rarely do we really slow down to listen and squint with our ears to hear the emotions, fears, and underlying concerns. Despite its value-creating properties, listening is rare for many leaders, and this lack of listening is one of the key reasons leaders derail.

We have observed three common pitfalls that inhibit people from stepping back for authentic listening:

Listening Pitfall 1: Hyper Self-Confidence

When we see ourselves as the quintessential expert, the most experienced or accurate person in the room, we position ourselves to fall into a listening black hole. Others with valuable insights defer rather than speak up, diminishing rather than strengthening leadership teams. The kiss of death for collaboration, connection, and innovation is moving too quickly to our own perceived "right" answer. Slow down, and challenge yourself to pause and to listen a few minutes longer to move from transaction or hyperaction to transformation.

Listening Pitfall 2: Impatience and Boredom

When conversations or meetings don't reflect our point of view or are not intellectually challenging enough, we may get impatient or bored. Our inner voice, drowning out other voices in the room, says, "They are not getting it!" They may not be getting your solution, but they are getting something, possibly something valuable but hidden to you. If we are too caught up in our judgmental self-conversation, we can never really genuinely listen and hear what is going on around us. We lose on multiple levels: we don't learn; we don't know what is happening; we don't connect; and we don't innovate. Fight your impatience and boredom by looking deeper. Pause to question: What are they seeing and understanding that I don't see? What are the beliefs underneath what is being said? What are the hopes and fears underneath the surface? Stretch yourself mentally and emotionally to stay engaged by looking deeper. Remember, you can always disagree or reframe the conversation later, but as St. Francis advised, "Seek first to understand."

Listening Pitfall 3: Bias for Action

Sometimes listening is challenging because we want to do something, not just hear about it. Our hyperactive impulses derive from our certainty that we know the solution and reactively want to implement it. However, it isn't always optimal to rush in with the answers, unintentionally creating dependency, stunting the growth of others, and sacrificing transformative breakthroughs. Pause a bit longer to let groups struggle and strain more as they explore ideas, options, and deeper solutions. Listen to how they are collaborating, resolving conflict, and problem solving. Give introverts space to speak up. Step back more and step in only when absolutely necessary.

What Listening Does

Pausing to listen to the needs, concerns, and aspirations of our key people is crucial to growing talent. If you find yourself rushing about from meeting to meeting, project to project, and rarely pausing to check in with your key people, your team and organizational risk is mounting. Having deeper developmental discussions, really engaging people, communicates care and connection. Pausing for developmental dialogue elevates the business conversation from management tactics to leadership excellence.



Try practicing authentic listening. Be with people and have the goal to fully understand the thoughts and feelings they are trying to express. Use your questions and comments to draw them out, to open them up, and to clarify what is said rather than expressing your view, closing them down, and saying only what you want. Not only will this help you to understand the value and contribution the other person brings, it will create a new openness in the relationship that will allow you to express yourself and be heard more authentically as well.

Authentic listening creates the platform for true synergy and team effectiveness. Valuing and attending to different perspectives from diverse sources results in a more complete understanding of issues and more elegant solutions. Authentic listening is the soul of growing others.

Reprinted by permission of Berrett-Koehler. Excerpted from THE PAUSE PRINCIPLE: Step Back to Lead Forward, copyright 2012 Kevin Cashman. All rights reserved.

Kevin Cashman is a Senior Partner, CEO & Board Services, Korn/Ferry International. He is recognized as a pioneer in leadership development and executive development, focusing on optimizing executive, team, and organizational performance.

[Image: Flickr user Joe Philipson]

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11 Comments

  • Tim Hwang

    Huh? What did you say? I wasn't paying attention to any of the awesome words of wisdom stated here because I already know and have the best advice to give you before you complete your thought.

    :P

  • Kara H

    Great reminder this morning; thank you! This reminds me of tips I learned from "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie...it's crazy that over 75 years later the same rules apply. 

  • Tom Tuohy

    Excellent. Remaining present has become a challenge. Perhaps the easiest, yet surprisingly difficult task is to simply listen to every word. Ignore the room, and ignore the noise in your head. 

  • Shirley Showalter

    Mark Nepo is launching a new book this week called Seven Thousand Ways to Listen. Highly recommended.

  • Patrick

    This dovetails nicely with some recent work from author Sherry Turkle's book 'Alone Together'. It puts into context the social ramifications of our increasing dependence on electronics, how our sense of self and understanding is begin to reside inside our smart phones, how rarely we manage to put down the device and how poorly we tend to look a person in the eye, carry on an in person conversation, and yes, how poorly we listen.

    Leadership today needs to get outside the bounds of the current pace, have a deeper series of thoughts on a single subject and figure out how we can best fit into the plans ~ for the benefit of the important people around us and not just four ourselves, or the self we think we are.

  • Martha

    Thank you for this article.  It resonates with my experiences in life.

    A process that works for me, when I'm self-aware enough to use it, is to:-  Thoughtfully craft an insightful question, one that might begin with "why" or "what if"-  Listen to understand...listen to learn-  Pause...to digest, think, and reflect-  Respond with respect and curiosity, if a response is necessary at all. I try not to solve.  I've come to believe (unsolicited) help is an act of aggression.  

    While I have abundant first-hand experiences regarding the value of this approach throughout my life - both in large or small groups, and in one-on-one conversations....it's can still be "easier said than done".  It gets "easier", the more I practice.  

  • Conorang

    Great read! Simple concept; as leaders we should listen, observe and question more often and resist the temptation to talk, do or solve.