Knowing what employees actually talk about sounds like a simple task. It is not. When managers and consultants show up, the conversation changes.
But there are some simple dos and don'ts to remember when you want to know what's on peoples' minds at work. And once you know what gets talked about and how it is discussed, you have a much better chance at being an effective change leader.
Listen to their actual conversations - don’t ask them what they talk about, because they either can’t remember or won’t tell you.
Focus on the questions they ask each other - don’t underestimate the power of questions, because questions show what people know, what they don’t know and who they turn to for knowledge.
Take all the questions they ask each other seriously - don’t consider some questions relevant and other questions irrelevant, because you don’t know what matters to people until you have a complete picture of the questions they ask and don’t ask each other.
Note if there are some words and phrases they use more than others - don’t ignore expressions you have heard before, because there might be a good reason for why they are repeated.
Notice if there is a difference between the questions they ask each other one on one and the questions they ask in plenum - don’t confuse the formal hierarchy with who and what is important to the organization, because it’s the impact people have on each other in their everyday interaction that matters the most.
Find out if it’s always the same people asking and the same people answering - don’t try to facilitate an equal dialogue, because the natural dynamics will give you insight into the informal relations.
Find out which question-words they use - don’t focus on the distinction between open and closed questions, because there are so many more differences between asking how (process) and what (result), why (purpose) or when/who/where (context).
Explore the impact of the questions they ask each other - don’t merely think about questions as request for answers, because a question can also be a call to action or a way to show affection or draw attention to something - or someone.
Make yourself the least important person in the room - don’t draw attention to yourself and your own intentions, because then people will talk about what they think you want them to talk about instead of what they actually care about.
If you ask questions, use the same words they do - don’t ever put words into their mouths, because it will make them stop feeling safe using their own words and they will start using yours because they think that’s better.
Ask yourself what you’re missing - don’t think you are unbiased, because nobody is, and your position and perspective makes it impossible for you to hear things from different perspectives.
Let them ask you questions if they need more information - don’t give examples, because that will only make them feel that there are some things more relevant to talk about than others.
I have a feeling this list will grow as I learn more about the nature and impact of questions, so feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your experiences, ideas or questions.
Co-founder and Chief Methodologist at Qvest. Pia is the inventor of the Qvest method. She has a PhD in Philosophy and has spent the last 20 years researching and writing about the nature and impact of questions.
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