Beware Multiple Questions

set of hand drawn arrows and speech bubbles on cardboard  background, vector illustration

set of hand drawn arrows and speech bubbles on cardboard background, vector illustration

A common mistake made by managers when giving feedback is to ask questions which are unclear. This can easily make the conversation more difficult than it should have been.

Let me give you an example:

“Fred, I have noticed you have been late in submitting your figures for the last two weeks and this is having a knock-on impact delaying the new marketing campaign.”

(so far so good)

“What’s the problem? Is it to do with the new software or is it because you are waiting on Jim in sales? Is there anything I need to know and how can I help?”

(Fred now has a choice of which question to answer and will probably plump for the easiest)

“Thanks boss, no everything is now under control and I will let you know if I need any help.”

The result of the above exchange is minimal. The manager is none the wiser about what has happened and Fred is none the wiser as to what the manager wants him to do in future.

A much better question would have been:

“What’s the problem?”

(Fred talks about the situation and you listen, before asking a second question)

“What do you need to do to ensure your figures are always submitted on time in future?”

Multiple questions do not help the person receiving the feedback so keep your questions short, simple and only ask one at a time.

Reap What You Sow, by Steve Farmer

It has been a little while since my last tip and a couple of things have prompted me to get back in the swing of it. Firstly I have received several really nice bits of feedback saying how useful the old tips have been and that they have helped with some challenging conversations. Secondly I have run a ‘difficult conversations’ workshop this week and a new ‘top tip’ emerged from one of the ‘Real Play’ scenarios.

This scenario was different in that the difficult conversation was going to be with a person the manager had not met and did not know. In this case it was going to be a conversation with a key customer about outstanding invoices but it equally could have been any number of other situations where you need to influence or negotiate with a new customer/supplier/employer.

The manager in this instance was new in role and was picking up a problem that others had failed to resolve. He had been given snippets of information about the customer (a senior manager in a council department) and most of that feedback had been about how difficult this person was to deal with. Apparently he was unsmiling, short of time, unfriendly, only interested in own agenda and generally tough.

Now those things may well have been true and were shared honestly to try to help this manager. The problem in this case was that these impressions were used to shape the approach that this manager took. In the ‘Real Play’ (where an actor is the council manager) our manager had the conversation expecting bluntness and a battle and lo and behold that is exactly what he got back.

When we unpicked what had happened it started to emerge that our manager had almost tried to mirror his expectations. He had been unsmiling and serious. He had adopted a fixed posture and steely gaze which remained unaltered. He had used very direct language and failed to listen stating only his needs.

Management Tips Graphic - Businessman Reaps What He Sows

The beauty of ‘Real Play’ is that you can rewind and try different approaches. The second time our manager was more ‘himself’. He smiled a little more, was more relaxed and listened better. He put aside his script and responded to the other person and lo and behold a dialogue started with scope for better understanding and finding areas of mutual benefit.

The real meeting is due to take place next week and of course there is no guarantee it will go anything like our second iteration. However, I can guarantee it will certainly go like the first attempt if our manager assumes too much of how the other person is going to be.

Fundamentally whether the other person is an actor or a real person they will respond to your behaviours. In other words we reap what we sow.

Tips for Managers: Be Clear on Your Purpose

One of the most common requests that we get from managers is “how can I learn to be better at delivering those really difficult performance or behaviour type conversations?”

You know the ones! The ones you dread. The ones you know will be uncomfortable and emotionally charged. The ones you would rather not do.

Top Tip No.1 is “Be clear on your Purpose”

It sounds obvious to be clear on your purpose. However it is surprising how many managers spend more time planning what they are going to say than planning what they want to achieve.

You should be absolutely clear on your aim and desired outcome from the session. You may not achieve 100% of your goal but you will almost certainly fail if none is set.

Let’s imagine you have a member of staff who regularly fails to keep commitments or complete activities within set time scales. There are a number of different outcomes you might wish to achieve ranging from an apology, an apology and a commitment to improve, a commitment to improve, an agreement to improve to a specified level etc etc.

Once you are clear on your purpose this will help you plan what you are going to say and how to approach the meeting.  (We’ll talk about this more in future tips)

If only there was a way…

If only there was a way of practicing these difficult conversations in a safe and supported environment which feels just like the real thing.

Well the good news is that Tim and I have developed a workshop using business actors that does just that. This is not painful ‘role play’. This is what we call ‘real play’ because the only person acting is the actor. The manager’s job is to manage a very real situation (that they have defined) however they wish.

Not role play, but real play…

It is definitely not Role Play as can be seen from these two testimonials. (Read more testimonials)

“When I was introduced to real play I thought it was going to be a boring role play exercise but I have to admit I was totally wrong! It was amazing how the actor made the real play a “real life” conversation! The real play gives you the opportunity to try different approaches and techniques for critical conversation and also allows to receive valuable feedback from the audience.”

“Real Play was an innovative way of helping us practice handling real life people management issues. The actress was brilliant and you quickly forgot it was role play!”

There is so much learning to be had from a ‘real play’ session – let us know if you have questions about how it could work for you!