Leadership Lesson: How to be a better listener by using strategic questions

Published in the Phoenix Business Journal on November 19, 2020

Talk first, listen second. It is the flawed standard in American business: it does not allow others to say what is important to them, appropriate focus is deflected from important matters, and leaders learn less when they do all the talking.

Harvard University research notes that we can listen three times faster than we can talk: we can listen at a rate of 300 words per minute and talk at 100 words per minute.

“There is only one rule for being a good talker - learn to listen.” - Christopher Morley, American Author

Any questions?

When good leaders ask relevant questions, they open their doors to listening opportunities. What kinds of business questions matter? Hint: view all functions of a business organization with a strategic lens on all elements of a strategic plan:

Purpose – what are we doing for our customers?

Vision – what do we want to look like in Y years?

Mission – what are our products and services, and for whom?

Values – what are our beliefs and behaviors, and our culture?

Objectives/Goals – what are our specific quantitative and qualitative goals?

Strategy – how do we optimize our use of limited resources to succeed?

The power is in the question

A key way for leaders to open up for valuable listening is to ask great strategic questions. Here are a few examples:

Why? Why now? Understand the relative importance and timing of something.

What do you need to make it happen? This creates a shared responsibility to provide the resources required to achieve a goal. 

What is the next step (or what are the next steps)? The way to keep things moving forward. 

What is the potential upside? What is the effort involved? What is the probability of success? What is the strategic value? Whenever there is a new opportunity, the answers to these questions are essential. 

What are the risks and what would we do if they occur? What is the worst that could happen? Given that things can go wrong, identify them, and then determine what actions to take if they do misfire - including not going forward with insurmountable risks.  

What problem are we solving? In meetings we often find ourselves having completely different conversations, so ask if we are working on the best opportunity.

What do you think? Asking others for their inputs is critical so that they can be heard and valued, and more often than not some useful ideas will emerge.

What did we learn today? If we learned something new and valuable, it was a day worth having and remembering. 

What else? This is a powerful question that can open up endless possibilities.

The bottom line

Stop talking, start listening, and learn more by asking important questions. Your listeners will feel more trusted and positive. Better leaders listen better.

Click here to read this article on the Phoenix Business Journal site.