Julie Thorson
Julie Thorson

For those of us who like to talk, this is probably one of the most difficult leadership lessons. Here it is … STOP talking! 

Even though I haven’t mastered this skill, lately I’ve been reminded that the best decision we can make as leaders is the conscious decision to stop talking and start really listening. When we ask the right questions, a beautiful, powerful dance takes shape.

Years ago, when I was in sales, I thought the key to selling apartments on our campus was to “talk people into it.” After all, I communicate well, have a convincing message and am somewhat likeable; who wouldn’t want to buy a beautiful apartment from me? Sales stalled and I seriously felt the pressure of selling new apartments for our campus. 

My teammate reminded me of Stephen Covey’s Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. It’s funny how a simple quote can sometimes stop us in our tracks and make us realize we can and should do better. From that point on, I made a commitment to ask better and more questions. 

This habit has served me well, but I can always do better. In leadership, in particular in a coaching style of leadership, putting the right questions together and really listening to the answers can be a game-changer. This is hard because I have really good advice. I think sometimes it is my role to give advice, even when I’m not asked. This is wrong. Plain and simple. 

Unless people ask for advice, we shouldn’t offer it. This is hard. Our instinct is to want to give advice and to be helpful. 

A good reminder also comes from Michael Bungay Stanier’s “The Coaching Habit.” As I listened to his take on asking the right questions on a plane last week, it made me think of all the opportunities we have throughout the course of the day to ask great questions. One great takeaway from his book, (I won’t tell you all the questions he recommends to ask. You should read the book.) is to ask the simplest of questions, “What else?” It’s the equivalent of “Tell me more!” But the way he describes it, it makes me think of peeling back layers, really digging to find out what the real issues are.  

How is it we learn this as kids? “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” You know the drill. The annoying 3-year-old who asks a series of “whys” until we want to pull out our hair. We get frustrated, but doesn’t a true understanding of one’s perspective come from digging until you uncover the truth? “Why” may actually be the perfect question. 

There is a need to fill in the silence with why we think something is one way. The only truth, as the speaker knows, has to come from them! So, zip it! Listen to your teammates talk. Listen without distraction. Practice. Practice and then practice some more. If you are anything like me, you may need to interrupt, apologize and ask whoever is speaking to repeat what they said to listen with all parts of you. 

Judy Brown’s work in a “A Leader’s Guide to Reflective Practice” also is a good reminder of how the right questions can make all the difference. The idea of softball questions (the practice of asking a question in which the only possible answer can come from the other person) is so powerful. The more I work this into my leadership practice, the more I see true breakthroughs happen. When someone figures out where a feeling is coming from rather than me telling them, it hits home more powerfully. Even more, it sticks! Isn’t that what we want? For the “aha!” moments to stick and mean something?

Our leadership lesson for today: Be quiet, ask great questions and listen. It’s so simple, sometimes a 3-year-old practices it better than we do. So, the next time you find yourself wanting to offer advice or talk someone into what you think they should do, zip it! 

Julie Thorson’s was the 2018 recipient of the LeadingAge Dr. Herbert Shore Outstanding Mentor of the Year award. Her “Living Leadership” blog was named the 2016 “Best New Department” Bronze Award winner by the American Society of Health Publication Editors. The president and CEO of Friendship Haven, a life plan community in Fort Dodge, IA, Thorson is a coach’s daughter at heart. A former part-time nursing home social worker, she is a licensed nursing home administrator and has been a participant in LeadingAge’s Leadership Academy.