Jedi-level listening and the importance of asking ‘what’ questions
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Jedi-level listening and the importance of asking ‘what’ questions

May 18, 2022

Teasing out the facts from people’s stories when interacting with others will do a world of good in your ability to work well with anybody.

Here’s an example: I recently coached a federal leader who was frustrated that a direct report was leapfrogging her to talk to her boss rather than working directly with her. When we talked about this predicament, she told me why she thought it was happening and assigned motives to the direct report.

I asked, “What have you verified from your story?”

It was interesting to see how quickly a simple question opened things up. She responded, “Oh, I guess it could be this reason or that reason” and offered several different scenarios.

Then, we dove in further. How might you understand what actually is going on for this person? What is actually driving this behavior? What assumptions have you made and how might you check them? The session then turned to how she might establish greater trust.

In many cases, building trust comes down to listening, one of the most fundamental leadership attributes. It’s so important to be curious, asking “what” questions and then actually listening.

Focus on the whole person. Notice words, tone, pauses, facial expressions and other body language. Using Jedi-level listening will make everything else disappear, enabling you to demonstrate that you are present to that person, that they have your entire focus and that they are all that exists in the world.

I remember once meeting former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez in the Department of Labor cafeteria. We spoke for no more than 10 minutes, yet I was struck by how many questions he asked and how much listening he did as we talked about developing leaders at the agency.

The lesson? Even those in positions of great authority conversing in a casual setting with pizza in hand can be curious listeners.

We’ve all had times as leaders where someone is going through a crisis—maybe a personal one, maybe it’s organizational—and you know that what they need right then is your full and undivided presence. That can make all the difference.

For more insights into federal leadership, check out the Partnership’s Public Service Leadership Model.

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