The very first person I hired in my professional career ended up stealing thousands of dollars from the company. I quickly realized that this whole interviewing thing was something I needed to hurry up and learn to do. Good news was there was vast room for improvement after this inauspicious start. What I learned is that good interviewing skills, and even more importantly good leadership skills, require that we seek to understand. In other words, not starting with an agenda and using the discussion to further it.
I was reminded of this the other day when I opened an envelope that caught my attention in the mail. In very officious looking language akin to the warnings on those silly mattress tags (San Quentin here I come), this was a survey request. In big bold letters it said it was an ‘official document’ that ‘must be accounted for during processing’. As I read on, I just shook my head when reading the first question. I kid you not – here is the exact language: “Are you in favor of suspending acceptance of new refugees from Syria, Somalia, Libya and other ISIS-controlled countries until there is a top-to-bottom review of the vetting process to ensure that no terrorists are allowed into our country?” Yes / No
Whatever one’s political views – it’s clear that this question was not asked in a way to try to understand. It was designed to convince respondents of the rightness of a particular response and bolster an agenda. While we might place this neatly in the category of a biased pollster, as leaders it’s easy to fall into the same trap. We often ask questions to elicit the response we’re looking for. My agenda years ago was to get someone at least moderately qualified to run the Christmas Shop at the department store where I worked. (And yes, that needed to happen shortly after Labor Day which is a whole other story). And I did – he was a great salesman. He was also a thief.
In contrast, I had the chance to recently reconnect with a former colleague who’s a fellow twin-mom. We talked about her high school aged twins and the same thing that typically emerges from twin-mom discussions: how they’re similar, how they’re different and whether they are the best of friends. In the ‘how they’re similar’ category we talked about both of them playing, loving and being quite accomplished at multiple instruments. So naturally both went out for band. One loves it. The other one hates it.
What was interesting was what she shared next. That she spent time with her kids to understand WHY her daughter hated it and her son loved it. They’re in high school – so clear-eyed communication with a parent is not exactly a strength of the species. And of course she had an agenda – band accoutrements are hardly inexpensive. But rather than ‘listening’ so that she could convince her daughter how great band really is, she patiently observed, listened and pieced together what was driving their different reactions to band. And found a better and more fitting vehicle for her daughter’s musical talents to shine: the high school symphony. Which she loves. Clearly a few well-placed questions – and at this age there is typically a limit to the number you’re able to ask – were key.
It was a reminder to me of the role all of us play as leaders in asking questions that tell us not what we want to hear but really to understand the other person. That’s often as time consuming as it is effective in leading to shared understanding and more meaningful support. Asking in a way that seeks to understand in political discourse may be more than we can realistically hope for (though hope I do). But as leaders it’s critical that we do so. Because I can tell you firsthand – it’s awfully expensive when we don’t.