Leadership Development 101: Listening and Asking Questions

March 8, 2023

Listening and Asking good questions

Listening and asking good questions are essential leadership development skills that are often underdeveloped. As we move through life, we develop expectations. We expect that children should go to school and have a good teacher. We expect that if we go on to college, we should have good professors. If we visit a physician, we expect that person to be knowledgeable and will give us wise treatment. When we’re hired by an organization, we expect that we will have a good boss.

According to Inc Magazine, three out of four employees single out their boss as the most stressful part of their job. It also reported that 65% of employees indicated they would take a new boss in favor of a pay increase. Deloitte reports that 87% of organizations acknowledge that they don’t do an excellent job of leadership development at all levels. Finally, the Stress Research Institute in Sweden discovered that employees working for a manager they didn’t respect were 60% more likely to experience a heart attack or similar cardiac life-threatening event.

Every employee deserves to work for a good boss. Given that this does not come naturally to everyone, organizations need to be intentional in developing their leaders.

How Many Organizations Attempt to Develop Better Bosses?

In a study conducted in 2008 by Booz Allen in conjunction with the American Society of Training and Development, they reported the following. Data was collected from 387 companies worldwide with revenues between $500 million and $3 billion and an average employee count of over 35,000. This research found only one in four corporations had an active leadership development program. The most successful companies were more likely to have an active leadership development program for developing leaders. And smaller organizations were less likely than larger organizations to be developing their leaders.

In terms of sheer quantity, it is disheartening to recognize that only a quarter of medium to large-size organizations take this need of leadership development seriously.

A Reasonable First Step—Listening and Asking Good Questions

In the vortex of information and opinions from the thousands of books and tens of thousands of articles about leadership development, there are three activities we’ve found to be consistently fundamental to successful leadership development efforts.

  1. The senior leaders of the organization take the leadership development of the next generation of leaders seriously. That means caring about whether the next generation is deliberately being given work assignments to help them grow. While most leaders have periodic discussions about the work itself, this means also having conversations about what the employee is learning and if they believe they are progressing toward their career objectives. While external coaches may be used to enrich employee skills, the senior team realizes that because of their power position with the people reporting to them, their coaching is also needed for optimum growth to occur.
  2. Every leader is expected to have and actively pursue a plan for their leadership development. That plan is based on objective data that clarifies their strengths and any weaknesses that currently detract from their performance. This self-awareness does not come from meditation or counseling (helpful though they can be) but from external feedback. That’s why 85% of large organizations with an active leadership development activity use 360-degree feedback instruments.
  3. Skill development on the most important people skills a leader needs to possess. Football coaches are fond of extolling the importance of the fundamentals—blocking and tackling.

What are the blocking and tackling skills of leadership development?

They are the leader’s ability to listen effectively and to ask insightful questions. Leadership development occurs through the communication process, and the most important part is not the “half-time locker room speech” but the daily one-on-one interaction with colleagues.

Register for this month’s leadership webinar, ARE YOU REALLY LISTENING? A Guide to Tuning In and Asking The Right Questions.

Some Basics of Good Listening Skills

In an article published by Harvard Business Review in their booklet titled “Empathy,” we spelled out our research on what made good listeners. We enumerated six levels of listening.

Level 1: The listener creates a safe environment for discussing difficult, complex, or emotional issues.

Level 2: The listener clears away distractions like phones and laptops, focusing attention on the other person and making appropriate eye contact. This behavior not only affects how you are perceived as the listener, it immediately influences the listener’s own attitudes and feelings. Acting the part changes how you feel inside. This, in turn, makes you a better listener. It means you are truly present in the conversation.

Level 3: The listener seeks to understand the substance of what the other person is saying. They capture ideas, ask questions, and restate issues to confirm that their understanding is correct.

Level 4: The listener observes non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, perspiration, respiration rates, gestures, posture, and other subtle body language signals. It is estimated that 80% of what we communicate comes from these signals. It sounds strange to some, but you listen with your eyes as well as your ears.

Level 5: The listener increasingly understands the other person’s emotions and feelings about the topic at hand and identifies and acknowledges them. The listener empathizes with and validates those feelings in a supportive, nonjudgmental way.

 Level 6: The listener asks questions that clarify assumptions the other person holds and helps the other person to see the issue in a new light. This could include the listener injecting some thoughts and ideas about the topic that could be useful to the other person. However, good listeners never hijack the conversation to become the subject of the discussion.

While many of us think a good listener is like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, these findings show that good listeners are actually like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of—and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.

They make you feel better by not merely passively absorbing, but actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

Asking Good Questions

The second important counterpart skill to football’s blocking and tackling is the skill of asking good questions. We ask questions mostly to connect and to learn. “How are you?” is a connecting question. Seldom do we really want a detailed diagnosis of the other person’s physical well-being. We ask most other questions because we want further information and we want to increase their positive perceptions of us. In general, people don’t ask enough questions because we fail to recognize the enormous benefits of interpersonal bonding and how questions are the gateway to learning important information.

Asking questions, ironically, is a confirmation that we’ve been listening. The most valued questions confirm our genuine interest in learning more about what someone is saying.

What are the key components of asking good questions?

  1. Positive intent. Good dialogue is a cooperative activity meant to benefit both parties. Good questions do not have barbs and never intend to be a “gotcha.”
  2. Open-ended. The best questions require the other person to think (often in a new way) about an issue. Questions that ask for examples to identify assumptions or understand the back story illuminate the issue and the emotions around it.
  3. Follow-up. Follow-up questions help the other person to bring forth their reasons for the conclusions they have made. It usually causes the other person to feel respected and valued. The phrases “tell me more,” “give me an example,” and “how has this affected you” all signal genuine interest.
  4. Confirm understanding. Many news anchors introduce an expert guest on their show and then ask something like, “Is how I described the issue accurate? Did I miss anything or state something incorrectly?” Questions to verify that you correctly understand the other person’s views are respectful and valuable.
  5. Two-way flow. The best listeners are not always quiet. They express their views when appropriate. Ideally, it’s a gift exchange in which both parties give and receive valuable information.

Listening and Asking Good Questions Conclusion:

The only way to have nearly everyone working for a good boss is for organizations to take leadership development more seriously. It is not a function of dollars being spent. It begins with a “We own this” mindset of the current leadership team. It means their ongoing willingness to make new work assignments on the dual criterion of “who can do this well and on time” along with “for whom would this be valuable development?”

Secondly, organizations owe every leader and aspiring leader a way to get objective feedback and support in creating a personal plan of leadership development.

Finally, leaders need the opportunity to gain better interpersonal skills, beginning with becoming excellent listeners and being more adept at asking useful questions. Doing that will help the organization perform at an even higher level, with better retention and higher productivity customer experience.

-Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman