The Right Framing and Questions Lead to Productive Conversations

by Cheri Torres

Imagine trying to lead an organization or team without words or conversation. Impossible, right? Everything leaders do is mediated through conversation. So, what are you doing with your conversations?

What if you had the keys to ensure your conversations would fuel productivity and engagement? Keys that would inspire creativity, motivate collaborative action, and generate innovative possibilities for resolving complex challenges? Think of how and where you might be able to take your team or organization empowered with those keys!

There are only two keys. They will help you do all of the above, and we’re going to give them to you right now: Positive framing and generative questions.

The first key is to frame your conversations to talk about what you want, to focus on desired outcomes instead of on problems and deficits. Then, use the second key: powerful generative questions. Ask questions that indicate you don’t have the answer. Questions that invite diverse perspectives, new information and disruptive ideas related to the outcomes you’re after. The conversations that will evolve will allow you to collaboratively discover ways to move towards those outcomes.

Here’s an example. A leading Fortune 500 company had a serious issue with sexual harassment. Leaders, anxious to do something about it, began a root-cause analysis and conducted surveys to clarify the extent of the problem and solicit solutions. The more they looked into it, the worse the problem became. It seemed sexual harassment was rampant and tension in the organization grew even as they attempted to find solutions.

A curious consultant asked, “What do you want?” Leaders replied, “An end to sexual harassment.” The consultant pushed forward. “OK. If there is no sexual harassment, what will there be?”

After consideration, one replied, “Well, of course, we want high-quality, cross-gender relationships in the workplace.”

After leadership began to ask questions about where those kinds of relationships were occurring, the solutions began magically to appear. Many people had examples of such relationships and from their stories they co-developed a strategy for teams and leadership to reinforce and ensure high quality, cross-gender relationships going forward. Two years later, the organization won an award from the National Organization for Women as a Best Place to Work for Women.

Leadership at this company used the two keys to resolve a complex and seemingly overwhelming problem. The first key, positive framing, shifted the focus from sexual harassment to high-quality, cross-gender relationships (from problem-focused to outcomes-focused). The second key, generative questions, allowed these leaders to ask questions about high-quality, cross-gender relationships. When they did, they discovered many such relationships already existed and people were eager to talk about them.

As leaders analyzed those relationships, they discovered patterns, behaviors and practices they could implement as policy. It changed the way people worked across the whole organization.

Sound simple? It is, but it’s not easy to make these two adjustments in our daily conversations. As leaders, we are constantly in our own way. Deep down, we believe we should know the answers or be able to figure things out (we’re the leader after all).

Preconceived ideas, our expectations and our habits of thinking conspire to limit the chances of creativity and divergent thinking. Judgments and emotions cloud our capacity to see potential in people and situations. Discomfort with discomfort makes us revert to the known, limiting the odds we’ll catch a glimpse of what’s possible.

If you want to use the keys, get comfortable being uncomfortable and not knowing. We now live and work in a world of ambiguity and uncertainty, where complex challenges demand collaborative and disruptive thinking. Adopt an attitude of curiosity about almost everything: Are you sure you know? Could you be missing information? Are your perceptions skewed by your beliefs and worldview?

You can’t be sure. So be a leader-explorer. Look in the direction you want to move — into the fog of uncertainty. Invite others to look with you. Then ask powerful questions that generate a pathway into a future that is co-created!