What kinds of questions should good leaders ask to demonstrate listening actively?

In the book, The Collaboration Effect, is a chapter on listening actively. I believe the most important chapter in the book to address conflict, disputes, and collaboration is the chapter on listening actively. Associated with listening actively is the ability to ask good questions and good follow up questions. In the commentary that follows I offer some of the kinds of questions you may want to consider as a leader. Let me know what you think? I welcome your ideas too.


From The Collaboration Effect as background


In the book The Collaboration Effect the emphasis on listening actively focuses on three areas. These are:

  • Paraphrase, summarize, use open ended questions, and emphasize
  • Find common ground through values
  • Practice patience and professionalism

I am always learning as are not we all. Adding to the first bullet I have expanded on this to include additional elements that are hard to do and take practice. These are “suspend judgment” and “do not offer advice.” Now I use an acronym of  PASSED to help me remember them. PASSED stands for


Ask open ended questions


Suspend Judgment


Do not offer advice

Keep in mind this is when you are making a specific effort to listen to the other party. When someone has been listened to, they are more apt to listen to you. Think about that last statement. Who do you think is a good listener. Why do you admire them? What can you learn from them?

Knowing how hard it is to suspend judgment and to not offer advice, give yourself positive self-talk and practice self-distancing using your own name. For example my name is Mike so I may say to myself something like “Common on Mike you can do this” or “Stay focused Mike” or something like that.

Focus on what values you have in common. To find out about these with others you have to develop an authentic, connecting relationship with the other party. Research all you can about them online using Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other on-line sources as well as your own network. Do not focus on beliefs. These can become negative very quickly. Rather focus on your common values.

Realize this will take practice and patience. Do not blame yourself or the other party. Learn from your mistakes and stay focused on improving and the future.


Should leaders question?


There will never be another time when change is as slow as it is today. Think about that. Change is growing at an exponential rate. With that in mind our current barometer of change is as slow as it will ever be. Why is this significant? You do not have all the answers. You did not have them before, and you do not have them now.

Be vulnerable about you do not know. Others respect you for your honesty and for your willingness to listen. This demonstrates that you trust others and welcome their thoughts and ideas. People want to be heard. As you become more practiced in asking questions this will help you build relationships and connect better with others.


What kinds of questions should you ask?


This depends on who you are talking to and how they may contribute to your understanding. Tailor your questions to your audience.

For example, if working with others and you want to connect better with others on your team you may ask questions like:

  • What would you like to have happen?
  • What have you been thinking about lately?
  • What would it take for you to feel satisfied?
  • What have we not covered that you want me to know about? (during a meeting)
  • What can I do to help you?
  • What are you working on currently?
  • Do you have any other concerns or problems?

Then you may follow up one of these questions with a statement like: “tell me more.”  Keep asking questions to enhance your understanding. Dig deeper and empathize with the other party.

On the other had say you are a leader of an organization and you brought together your leadership team. You may want to ask for direction strategically. This is an entirely different audience. What might you want to ask them?

  • What should we be doing differently to bring on board specific technologies going forward?
  • What do you see as game-changing opportunities going forward?
  • How can we better serve our customers?
  • What are new areas we should be working on?
  • Who should we be collaborating with to take advantage of intrinsic value for both of us?
  • What can we do to  better meet the needs of specific customers?
  • With specific supply chain constraints, what can we do to address these and future unanticipated shocks to be more flexible in the future?

You may find by simply focusing on the word “opportunities” this may put perspective in a more positive light. These types of questions involve others and invite others to collaborate with you. Developing relationships with your people and your customers is key to you and your firm’s success. Reach out beyond your own firm. Ask others.


Focus on them


By being vulnerable and open you may be surprised at what you may learn. Be clear that you value their opinion. Be calm with respect to what you hear. You may not like what you hear. Remain confident that you want to understand. Be competent in knowing that you are listening. You are not judging. Others are watching and listening too. If you do not really listen, they will figure that out quickly too. Demonstrate compassion towards others.

When someone makes a mistake or a blunder, do not jump on that, rather reframe, and reflect what was said and gently turn the focus to what we can do going forward. We do not need to dwell on negativity of the past. Connect with others. Demonstrate that you value character and that you are committed to everyone’s contribution. Everyone matters. We all depend on each other. Foster inclusion. We need to be aligned going forward, but what does the vision of forward look like to them? You may think you are steering the ship in a given direction, but likely not everyone is on board. If leaders asked their stakeholders more questions more often, they would likely build more trust going forward.


Overcome anxiety and frustration


People want to be heard. We live in a fairly volatile time with a pretty divided country for a host of reasons. What can you do to help your employees to cope to overcome stress, their fears, and reduce their anxiety? You can listen to them and be there for them. Ask them to help you generate ideas. Share with them what else you have heard. You will find new opportunities and be able to take on new challenges.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]