Is Your Financial Advisor Working in Your Best Interest?

Not all financial advisors are created equal. Nor are their fees. The issue that you may need to discuss with your advisor is how they receive their fees and how that may affect whether they lean toward serving your best needs or theirs.

Are you aware that many advisors are not required to make the choice that is most financially beneficial to you? Want to know if yours is? Ask whether they are following the fiduciary standard or the suitability standard. Find that tough to ask? There’s that sticky stuff we feel around money.

Let’s start from the beginning.

  1. Many advisors at brokerage firms are paid commissions to sell you products that the firm makes money from.
  2. Some of these advisors are good. Unfortunately, many are just good sales people whose advice is influenced the commissions they get paid.
  3. What makes an advisor money may not be the best choice for you. It may cost you more to buy a product that is no better for you than one that would leave more money in your account (for college, retirement or whatever you are saving for).

You need to ask your advisor which standard they are operating under—fiduciary or suitability. The question might feel to them or you like an accusation because money seems to do that to questions. This is a very important question to get comfortable asking.

  1. The fiduciary standard for Registered Investment Advisors (RIA), or an ERISA appointed Fiduciary, requires that the advisor put your needs ahead of theirs. The fiduciary standard requires that you hear about lower-fee options, if the lower-fee product is of equal quality. Advisors who are fiduciaries must:
  • Put the client’s best interest first.
  • Act with prudence; that is, with the skill, diligence and good judgment of a professional.
  • Not mislead clients; provide full and fair disclosure of all important facts.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest. And if conflicts are unavoidable, they must fully disclose and fairly manage in the client’s favor.
  1. Broker dealers, insurance salespersons or any other financial company advisors are required to apply a suitability standard.
  • They must know you and your financial situation.
  • They must recommend products that are suitable for your situation.
  • They can sell you products that result in them receiving a higher commission than for a comparable product.

If you’re not comfortable asking about fees and professional standards, you could lose a lot of money. The higher fees you pay may be invisible today, but result in dramatically less compounding over the time you own the stock, bonds, or other investment vehicles. Your discomfort may cause your portfolio to be worth thousands, or tens or hundreds of thousands less than it could be.

The other question you need to be able to ask is whether your advisors is fee only or fee based.

Fee-only advisors (look for RIA or ERISA) don’t sell products, don’t accept commissions and operate as fiduciaries.*

Fee-based advisors can sell you investment products for commission.

Again, discomfort in asking questions can cost you way too much!

More information:

  1. Watch an interview at the end of this article that I did with Gavin Morrisey about fees you may be paying your advisor that benefit him/her more than you—and what you can do.

Gavin is former Senior Vice President, Wealth Management at Commonwealth Financial Network and now managing partner at Financial Strategy Associates, a financial services firm in Needham, MA. He and his firm are independent, fee only advisors who will answer any and all your questions.

  1. Check out John Oliver Fiduciary and The Retirement Challenge on You Tube!
  2. Search the Web: There’s a lot of information how financial advisors get paid. In fact, that search led me to many interesting videos and articles.

Don’t avoid money or fee related conversations. If you want to talk with your advisor but feel uncomfortable, we can help you craft a conversation or email that is respectful and helps protect you.

Whether you’re an attorney, or other service professional thinking about raising fees, a dental office aware of the benefits for patients and your business if your team could talk more comfortably about costs, a parent who wishes he/she could talk with adult children about inheritance plans or family business, an adult child who fears approaching the conversation with parents for fear of seeming greedy, we can help you craft conversations that matter. Let us help you get more comfortable talking about money.

Kind of a P.S.

I know this article was long—and yet here’s more. More reasons to be wary. For those of you who have the bandwidth to keep going:

When I was doing research for this article, I came across these powerful and disturbing information-articles that highlighted kickbacks, contests, incentives for advisors. Here is just one of them. The bold is my emphasis.

From CNBC confessions from financial advisors    Friday, 20 Jun 2014

Most investors know their financial advisors take a percentage for managing their portfolios, but they probably didn’t know the mutual fund industry is also giving these advisors commission for pushing specific equity mutual funds, unbeknownst to investors.

I’m not talking about front-end load fees. I’m referring to commissions and bonuses that financial planners get after they put their clients into these funds.

The industry and SEC call these payments “commission” but in reality, they are a “kickback” or “incentive” for financial planners to push specific equity funds, even if they are not in their client’s best interest. This payment structure raises ethical and legality concerns on whose interest is being served: the financial planner or the client.

Even more disconcerting, most investors don’t know this is happening.

I’ve seen how this works following two decades of working on Wall Street for well-known brokerage firms. This payment structure to financial planners is hidden behind a smokescreen that is covered by layers of payments through different sources. First to the brokerage houses, then to the brokers.

This hidden-fee structure was addressed in the Dodd-Frank reforms, which went into effect on January 1, 2014. Under Dodd-Frank, disclosures for “commission” or “kick-back fees” are now required for pension and 401k retirement accounts, but accounts that aren’t regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act were excluded from the new law.

 

Questions Can Help You Listen Better

There are solid strategic reasons to ask questions.
A few examples:

  • Questions help you shift conversational gears.  They confirm that you, and whomever you’re speaking with, share enough information or understanding to move on.
  • Questions encourage the speaker to stop wandering and focus on what’s important.
  • Questions can help you get reengaged in a conversation that feels boring. They can help you resist an impulse to start lecturing or acting on an untested assumption.

When you’re ready to shift gears it’s important to be sure all parties feel they’re understood.

One of the reasons so many conversations loop back to feelings or data already covered—a prime reason for boredom and frustration—is a feeling that the other person doesn’t really understand your position. Ask questions to keep the conversation moving forward:

  • Is there something you’re saying that you’d like to be sure I understand? I’ll tell you what I heard and you can let me know if I’ve got what you’re saying.
  • Would it be helpful for me to summarize the points I think are important? I don’t want to keep going if we don’t understand each other.
  • Any part of what I said that you’d like to ask a question about? Or conversely: Can I ask you a couple of specific questions to be certain I understand what you think is important?

Questions can focus the conversation on what’s important.

Conversations have a tendency to wander unless at least one person keeps bringing attention to (talking or asking about) focusing on the important aspects. Questions are a way to help the other person focus:

  • Is there a specific part of what you said that you’d like to underline for me?
  • I have a couple of specific questions, is this a good time to ask them?
  • Is this a good time to summarize what I’ve heard to be sure I’ve got it?

Questions can help you refocus when you’re bored or even when you’re tired of taking the high road and are tempted to just join the other person in pushing your opinion without listening.

Formulating a question encourages you to strategize about how to influence the conversation to get focused, get shorter, or to lean in a direction that is more interesting to you. Questions engage your thinking brain and can help quiet your emotional brain—boredom is an emotional state and impulsive interruptions reflect low emotional regulation.

  • I’d be interested in how what you’re saying might affect how we relate to current clients?
  • Is there a way we can make practical use of this data?
  • What do you think would be the potential timing, if we were to introduce this idea to our teams? I find I’m worried about diminishing our focus on …

The impact of all these questions is based you being truly curious. Questions that are disguised statements—I.e., I think… don’t you agree?—are typically nowhere near as effective in influencing a conversation. Looking for an aspect of the conversation that truly sparks your curiosity may take effort, but can pay big rewards in increased loyalty and creativity of team members, clients who stick with you, and a wider network of people who trust you are someone who listens well.

Questions also let you discover small, important tweaks that can improve you services, products, and client satisfaction. More on this in a future article.

Asking questions can be efficient and respectful. You can move conversations along, while helping your conversation partner feel good about you. Being conversationally efficient, while being respectful isn’t easy, but it is something you can learn. Having difficult conversations can be easier when you know how to ask good questions.

If you’d like to learn how to craft questions and how to ask curious questions more often, why not call or email us? Increasing your positive connection with your team may be just a few question marks away.

How and Why to Bite Your Tongue

Don’t interrupt. It’s obvious; we know. Still it’s very difficult.  I speak from personal experience—after decades of paying attention to how important it is to wait until the other person is finished, I often cut them off anyway. I find it especially difficult to remember around friends and family.

According to Deborah Tannen, the linguist and author, some of us—me included—have a “high involvement” communication style. We “overlap” the other person’s speech. This can work—if the person you’re talking with has a similar style. And if what they’re talking about is more informational than deeply emotional.

Others have a “high considerateness” style. These people generally seek more clear pauses and want more order to the conversation.

Talking when you should be listening. Teaching when learning would serve you better.

In most cases it would be more respectful and helpful if I listened, instead of talked and learned, instead of tried to teach.

Why do we interrupt?

It can be helpful to identify what causes your interruptions:

•Are you trying to be supportive? To show you understand what the speaker is saying?
•Are you feeling crunched for time? Trying to move the conversation along?
•Are you more interested in sharing what you know rather than learning?
•Are you trying to show your expertise? Prove something?
•Are you worried that you’ll forget what you were going to say, if you wait until the other person is finished speaking?

Some things to try:

1. Notice when you interrupt

When you cut someone off, stop (even mid-sentence) and say something like: “sorry; I really want to hear what you have to say.” (This new habit will take time to develop and some courage.)

2. Enlist family or friends to help

Ask people you trust to respectfully remind you when you’ve cut them off. Ask for a do-over.

3. Create a cue to remind yourself

Sometimes sticky notes can help-in your car, on your bathroom mirror, at your desk at work. Find a word or phrase that you’ll be comfortable with others seeing—maybe “listen” or “pause.”

4. Track your progress

Initially just notice and count the number of times each day that you interrupt someone.
After a week or so, set a realistic goal and acknowledge your progress.
Some people find that self-acknowledgment works even better coupled with a reward.

When we click off or tune out before we’re sure we’ve heard and understand the speaker’s entire message, we cut ourselves off from some potentially useful information or insights. And, interrupting is not only disrespectful to the person being interrupted, but hurts you as the leader or manager. Sure, some of your team may be thick-skinned and more Teflon like. Others, though, will be put off and therefore less productive, loyal, or creative. Call or email us if you want to increase your positive connection with your team or just plain want to improve your listening skills.

Influence, the Wave of the Future

It seems clear to us that the next area of innovation is a return to one of the oldest of human endeavors—influencing valuable people to join you in pursuit of a common goal.

Yes, there are impressive technological advances still in the pipeline, let alone in the imagination of developers and entrepreneurs. Our relationship to healthcare and the wider world community will continue to change—although forward or backward can be debated. Cars will soon drive us, houses will stay one step ahead of our commands, and clothes will do more than warm and adorn us. Additional services that we hadn’t even imagined were necessary will become the norm.

But none of these potential advances, or other undreamed of ones, will proceed along their most effective paths unless you—the current and future leaders—are able to attract and nurture individuals and the teams they form. The brightest, most creative, most dedicated producers of value will only join your enterprise if you are genuinely able to step away from a self-centered approach to leadership and become a catalyst who assists them reach their goals and dreams. They will carry your dreams on their shoulders as they strive to achieve their own ambitions.

We see too many business leaders impatiently push instead of quietly influencing, value loyalty over creativity, or act like their vision is the only one that counts. Even leaders who are sensitive to the feelings of their employees seem to forget at times that their enterprises will only flourish if individuals are encouraged to thrive in their careers, lives, and dreams.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for most leaders is an inflated sense of their own ability to master work relationships and influence important people. How are you doing? If you see no weaknesses in your approach to team members, a caution flag should go up. If you recognize an area that could use upgrading and you haven’t set aside time to work on improving it, then you are giving an advantage to your competitors every time you attempt to attract or keep a major contributor.

A first step is to ask yourself questions, and take time to consider the answers:

•How am I doing?
•What are other people doing better?
•What am I avoiding?
•What habit should I be mastering?
•What are my priorities?
•Who do I wish I could entice to work for me?

The next step is to make a plan for addressing your weakness. It’s difficult to recognize your own failings, because they will tend to sit in your blind spot. Even if you think you can see them, they may be resistive to change because of other habits or attitudes you have—which can hide behind more obvious  shortcomings.

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Professional athletes depend on feedback from their coaches to see their lapses and improve their game. The best presenters and salespeople seek new ideas and analysis from specialty coaches. Musicians, actors, writers and so many others regularly request input from an experienced masters. Are you getting the feedback you need to improve your game? Arrange a strategy session today to explore how coaching can improve your ability to attract and retain high performing employees.

Surprising Problems with Praise

Despite the common advice of many business coaches, praise can demotivate your team and make them skeptical. Praise, like sweeteners, needs to come in measured amounts and not taste artificial.

People do experience meaning and satisfaction when they hear those they respect value their contributions. But it doesn’t it follow that we should therefore lavish praise on members of our teams.

Research points out that too much or insincere praise creates less than desirable results. This appears to be true both at work and with our families. Overdone or generalized praise is quickly dismissed as worth little. If everything is “great”, then you’re not believable. Overusing expressions like “Amazing!” “Wow Experience!” “Great Job!” all lead other people to feel that your praise is worth less.

Do you understand what I’m saying? Great job! You’re an amazing reader! Something certainly smells rotten in my praise.

To make praise effective it needs to be sincere, specific and address the actual work or effort. And it needs to come in believable doses.

One clear way to avoid hyperbole and misunderstandings is to share acknowledgements instead of praise. They’re similar, but acknowledgements make a specific statement about the results of a person’s actions. They don’t give a label of good or great. They don’t base an evaluation on your judgment of the person. Acknowledgements speak about the effect of a person’s activities.

For good work that is a tad above a person’s normal performance levels or when a team member finally shows continuity over a period of time try something like:

“I noticed your effort today produced results.”
“I notice your quality is staying higher.”
“I noticed you are trying that approach we talked about.”
“You put some real effort into getting that job done on time. Thank you.”
“Having the reports on time has been helpful.”

Save praise for exceptional situations—and still consider using an acknowledgement instead. If you’re going to fall back on praise, keep it  believable and use it only for above average work. Stick with simple acknowledgements for basic work done well.

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Developing new leadership and managerial habits takes specific understanding and practice. We can help you:

Learn how to acknowledge and praise wisely
Ask curious questions
Listen effectively
Reward for effort, strategy and progress

And, as a bonus, a healthy dose of acknowledgements and praise from a coach will help you implement habits that will increase your and your team’s performance and satisfaction. Call or email today if you want to set up a time to consider what habits will bring the most leverage to changing your business and your life.

How the Best Leaders Listen and Respond

I want to share two skills that are simple but take practice. We teach these to our clients to help them accomplish more and have fewer stressful debates with their team, clients—and even family members. If you are seeking more productivity, higher morale and more straightforward interactions, then give these a try.

When someone makes a statement that we disagree with, the most common response is to either ignore what they said or respond with all the reasons we don’t agree. There is a better way. Let me use an example I dealt with last month to illustrate what didn’t go well:

During a particularly hectic time at the company, Dave, the HR manager told John, his supervisor and our client—“We need to meet for 10-15 minutes each morning for the next couple of weeks to discuss the specific hires you’re looking for and possible ways to deal with the two employees who are under-performing.

John retorted, “No way! I can’t meet every day! I just don’t have the time.”

When John asked me for ideas about how to handle it better, I asked what he objected to. He said, “It’s ridiculous to think Dave and I can or need to meet every day.”

I asked what, if anything that Dave said that he had agreed with. He thought for a moment and said, “It makes sense that Dave understands the kind of person and attributes I’m looking for in the new employees.” He concurred that he wanted to have major input on how to document the under-performing employees because they probably would need to be terminated.

Suggestion 1:

If you agree, say so. Acknowledge the places of agreement.
If John wanted to change Dave’s suggestion and also give him credit for suggesting a solution instead of just waiting for a problem to develop, John could have said, “I agree that it would be a good idea for us to talk about the new hires and the documentation process.”

You don’t need to agree with everything said.  Team members will be encouraged to develop critical thinking skills by even partial agreement. So say out loud what you agree with.

Suggestion 2:

If you feel something was left out or needs to be altered, state your agreements first and then add to their thinking—build on their idea.

“I agree that it makes sense for us to meet; we need to talk about the new hires and what to do about the team members who are not performing. Because time is crunched, let’s meet twice next week and then evaluate where we are.”

By finding something to agree with you defuse a lot of the debates that start around people defending their suggestions. If you can limit the defensiveness and the debate time, you keep things moving. You’ll be surprised how often the points you disagreed with get dropped and everybody’s happy.

Close: What you do-and say-matters.  If you want your team to run more smoothly, think for themselves and make good decisions, consider calling or emailing us for ways to tweak your communication. Small changes can make a big difference—with team members, clients, and partners.  And, as one of my clients who keeps building skills – and seeing better results – reminds me, “It just feels better.”

Quick Ways to Improve Your Listening

Again and again, Jay and I see our clients running into trouble because they’re distracted by their own ideas and internal rebuttals when they might profit more from paying attention to what their team members or clients are saying. Here are a few quick ideas to help tune up your listening skills so you can stay focused when you don’t think it’s important. Thanks to Jay for this article – adapted from his book in process – Simple Steps to Listening.

Here are some quick, straightforward ways to help you listen better and encourage people to share vital information with you:

If you recognize you are or were wrong, chances are you missed an opportunity to hear everything that was available to help you make the best choice. Next time try coaching yourself to really understand a variety of other peoples’ opinions before committing to an action.

If you start thinking before the other person is done talking, chances are you missed some piece of important information. Try asking a question that you don’t know the answer to.

“I’d like to understand where this data is from.”
“What specifically has led you to have this concern?”
“How would you implement your idea?”
“Do you have a suggestion how we could reduce the risk you are talking about?”

If you find yourself preparing a response before you’ve heard everything the other person wants to say, you aren’t listening anymore and you will miss something. Will it be important? I don’t know, but to be a little more confident that you know what was said remind yourself:

“Find the unusual insight in the stew of their ordinary ideas.”
“What if one of their ideas were a clue that might tell me something about the future which of their thoughts is the clue?”

If you’re irritated by the person speaking, your ability to listen may well be overwhelmed by your frustration. Try assuming that the other person is probably doing the best they can. Quickly make up one or two possible positive motivations they might have to do what they’re doing. Whether you’re right or wrong makes little difference. Even considering alternative positive motivations will make it easier to recover from frustration.

People want to be listened to, and knowing they are encourages them to share more. How does the person who’s talking, know that you’re listening to them?

Look at them, not somewhere else or right through them. Respond with specific comments:
“That’s an interesting idea.”
“I like the idea of a new website approach. Let’s focus on that for a minute.”
“Please repeat that last idea. I want to be sure I understand it.”

Repeat a detail-“If I understand you, you’re saying…”

And perhaps the most powerful evidence that you’re listening is the acknowledgement you offer.

And remember, listening and watching are both paying attention. In a sense, watching is listening with your eyes. People will feel respected if they feel “seen” or “listened to,” and acknowledgements also show that you’re paying attention.

“Thanks for explaining your idea. You got the ball rolling.”
“You created the original dashboard. That started all the innovative ideas.”
“I’ve noticed that you’re always on the lookout for potential risks.”
“You’re someone I depend on to keep us abreast of the latest possibilities in the field.”

Have you found ways to keep your attention focused when you want to be listening? Please send them to us. We’d love to share them with other readers. Go ahead. We’re listening.

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Learning to listen means taking good ideas and practicing them. Our coaching sessions on better listening encourage lots of relaxed practice where you can find your own voice. Contact us to discover the importance of listening whether you’re a collaborative leader or an authoritarian one. Boost your leadership potential and strengthen your personal relationships with coaching that matters. And if you can’t see the purpose in listening better, you should know that we think we can show you some pretty compelling reasons why your business will profit from the effort. Call or email us and we’ll discover together which of us needs to listen to the other.

Encouraging Positive Behavior

People need people. This was brought to my attention again when Jay was reading Deep Survival a book about the attitudes and behaviors that survivors of accidents and natural disasters exhibit. Many lost adults don’t stay still so that they can be found during a grid search. They keep moving in an apparent attempt to reconnect with other people—anything but spending time alone. To be seen is to feel alive, safe and significant.

There is often a similar longing to be seen in the work environment. Team members want and need acknowledgments as much as lost hikers. It is necessary to pay employees, but that isn’t sufficient to motivate the best critical thinking or creativity. One of the techniques leaders need to develop is the ability to make a team member feel seen at a time that encourages them to repeat a positive action, attitude or effort.

Here are some ways to give a little acknowledgment in everyday situations:

Brighten just a bit each time a person looks at you and they will tend to look again. Jay and I use this technique to get people to focus on me when they’re talking to a group. And conversely you can look down or look away to encourage them to address someone else.

Say “Thank You!” when people give you tough feedback and they will tend to continue the behavior of daring to risk your displeasure.

Acknowledge a project or task that is completed on time and the positive attention will tend to nudge the employee toward getting the next one done on time.

Say a cheerful “Good Morning” right away when a chronically tardy employee shows up on time and you’re more likely to see a bit more on-time behavior.

If you work for someone, you might try completing a project early when it’s handed out early and holding it back until the last minute when it’s given to you late. This is different from the traditional “passive-aggressive” attitude because you’re working toward a solution that is intended to help both of you. You just need to be very clear that the goal is a smoother working relationship, not just one that satisfies you.

Say hi to team members as if they’re the one you’re pleased to see and they will more likely act like someone you want to see.

Positive feedback, smiles and noticing others’ constructive behaviors, all increase the odds of a repeat performance.

For more ways to increase your effectiveness and influence the outcomes you’re looking for, please call us at 978-446-9600 or email us.

Jay’s book Simple Steps to Change: Your Business, Your Life is a good resource, with lots of ideas, as well. You can read parts of it or purchase it on Amazon.

Successful Transitions

The transition from an old to a new process or system, from a previous manager or key employee to a new hire, or any other change is tough. Understanding more about how to manage the process will make it all go a bit easier. With the right information you can make a difference between a successful transition and one that just doesn’t work well. This post highlights some aspects of change based on “The Transition Model,” by change expert William Bridges, whom I had the pleasure and opportunity to study with. Besides reviewing this article, you might also find it helpful to watch Change expert Naomi Karten and me discuss change and transition.  Coping with Chaos: Change and Transition

Even a positive change like a new piece of equipment can make people feel uncomfortable. The most common reaction to change is to second-guess it, or even resist or oppose it. By understanding why your team is dragging their feet or expressing reluctance, you will be in a better position to help them accept and ultimately support the change that is coming.

William Bridges distinguishes between changes—something that happens to us by our own choice or is thrust on us—and transitions—the process that happens in our minds and feelings as we go through a change.

Change can occur quickly, in a moment in time—the day we got a promotion; signing the closing papers on a home; buying the business; hiring a new office manager. But the internal transition is usually slower. It simply takes time to get used to a change.

There is a tendency to go through three stages as we move through a transition:

1. The Ending—things as we know them have changed.
2. The Neutral Zone—an often messy time sort of muddling about before moving on.
3. A New Beginning—a new status quo develops as the change is consolidated.

People move through transitions at different paces. Entrepreneurs may jump from an old to new business adjustment much more quickly than their employees or team members. Some people will need to linger in the Neutral Zone while trying to understand or accept a difficult feeling change.

Here are some ideas about how to help make a transition more efficient and comfortable so your team can execute as quickly as possible:

Endings

•Slow down the process in order to speed up the process. Invest the time now to eliminate future problems.
•Be open and transparent about what’s going to happen.
•Emphasize what will stay the same—values, schedules or whatever.
•Accept that there will be resistance. Listen to peoples’ feelings. Listen to concerns. Listen to fears. There will be denial, anger, sadness, disorientation, loss of identity, frustration, and uncertainty. Listen well.
•Be clear about how you will help them adjust. Offer training and resources they may need, which you’ll discover because you were listening!

The Neutral Zone

•The way you help your team prepare for the coming change will determine how long people may muddle about before getting on with the new change.
•Expect some people to feel overloaded and uncertain or confused. Others will feel impatient. It takes time to adjust to a new management system or style.
•The leader who pays attention can often find ways to offer support that will keep the process moving.

The New Beginning
You know you’ve arrived at a stage of acceptance and renewed energy when people begin to embrace the change. They start to see their efforts pay off and to feel more comfortable. Don’t let down now. You need to help your team sustain their energy and enthusiasm.

•Help people see how their personal goals connect to your long-term vision and objectives.
•Be certain everyone hears how team members implement the change successfully.
•Acknowledge peoples’ grit and persistence.

This is the quick executive summary but implementing any piece will likely help make the transition go more smoothly.

If you are about to implement some change, anything from hiring a new key team member to changing some part of your system, let us help you strategize how to more effectively implement the change. We can even come in to help your team see their way through it. If you’ve currently stalled, call or email us and we’ll show you how to get moving again.

Questions versus Telling

A young couple, who were six months into a manufacturing startup, called to set an appointment to talk about their bedding product business. We asked how it was going in general, and they reported they were selling product and just barely meeting expenses. We set a time to stop by for a tour and a discussion.

Almost before they started our tour of their assembly shop we began to see some of the issues—their organic product line was so expensive it constricted their customer base to a tiny, upper-income niche when their natural market was more student based, they had hired college-educated assemblers with corresponding wages, and their facility was located in high-rent Cambridge, Mass.

By the time we finished the tour we were pretty sure we had a few really practical solutions—broaden the product line, hire cheaper labor and move. But we didn’t share our diagnosis and we didn’t give them any advice. We asked a question: Do you have specific problems you’d like help thinking through?

They did, and those weren’t the same problems we had been ready to solve. They wanted advice on creating a profit-sharing plan that would be pleasing and motivating to their college friends—those assemblers. They wondered how to find cheaper suppliers of organic materials, and by the way, they loved living and working in Cambridge—a different set of questions than we assumed. Our thoughts would have to wait until we developed a trusting professional relationship by addressing their questions.

We are a culture that values knowing and telling, and this often leads us into giving answers before we ask important questions about things like, what is the problem the other person wants to solve and how far have they gotten with possible solutions.  We tend to feel our status is enhanced by telling, that telling what we know shows our competence, or that just telling it speeds up problem solving and implementation.

We see this all the time in day-to-day interactions between leaders we work with and their teams. Recently a team member interrupted a meeting I was in with a company CEO. She asked, “What do you want me to do about the problem with the regulatory reports?”

He answered, “Like I told you, draft a response letter and show it to me.” When she left he expressed frustration, “How many times do I have to tell her?”

I asked if she would really know the answer to her own question, if she thought about it. He said she might. I asked what question he might ask that would force her to think it through. He came up with a reasonable initial question and began considering the effects of asking it. I then asked did he know if she was comfortable trying things without initially checking the details with him. He said he had never thought of asking her.

I didn’t need to suggest solutions to his problem; I needed to ask questions that neither of us knew the answer to. He didn’t need to tell his person what to do; he needed to find out what was getting in the way of her solving the problem on her own.

If you can actually stay curious, and demonstrate it by asking the right kind of questions, you encourage learning by both you and the other person. Being truly curious—humbly inquiring, not setting them up to answer your way—can help the other person drop their defensiveness and their need to know and begin to think.

Let me start this whole piece again.

How effective are you at getting other people to listen and learn when you keep telling them what to do?