Open-ended questions

On my second day of mediation training (halfway done with the full training!), I received an awesome compliment from one of the facilitators. She said that I have a talent for open-ended questions.

I especially appreciated this compliment because I really like asking open-ended questions.

What is an open-ended question? (Yes, that was an example of one.) An open-ended question is any question that cannot be answered with a “yes”, a “no” or another one word answer such as a number or color. An open-ended question provokes a meaningful response.

It reminds me of a management lesson I learned from the Interactive Institute for Social Change when I took their workshop, Managing with Impact, a few years ago.

The main thing I took from the management workshop is that it is important for a manager to balance inquiry with advocacy. When we advocate as managers, we give people advice, direction, instructions, or solutions to their problems. When we practice inquiry, we use open-ended questions to help the person being managed to find insights into their situation or problem or come to a solution.

My feedback from the management workshop leaders was that I could do more advocating, and a little less inquiry. I think I am still on the side of being more of an inquirer than an advocate, but I have become better at advocacy as my experience has grown. In some situations, I have been too far on the advocacy side of the balance. Advocating feels like a lot of pressure sometimes, because as a manager I don’t usually have as much information to advocate for a solution or an approach, and I need to rely more on my intuition.

A mediator’s job is only to reflect, reframe, and inquire. It is unlike a manager’s job in that no advocacy is expected or desired. I am really enjoying the opportunity to practice open-ended questions and inquiry with mediation training. I recommend it for managers who want to become better at the inquiry side of the balance.

Applying mediation techniques to management situations

Yesterday I had my first day of mediation training with the Conflict Resolution Center. I’m not sure if I will apply to become a mediator or not, but I am enjoying brushing up on my listening and conflict resolution skills. There are a number of things I can take out of the mediation training and apply to management, without conducting a full fledged mediation process.

For one, I (like many managers) have a tendency to problem-solve when people come to me with problems or concerns, and I think in some cases it would serve both me and the person coming to me better if I practiced more active listening techniques instead. I know that this is best practice since if you can help an employee to find their own solution, the solution will work better and they will learn and grow. Plus the people I work with are all really smart and come up with better solutions than I could come up with myself in many cases. Sometimes its hard to remind myself not to problem solve though when I think I have the best answer.

In particular, here are some techniques for asking open ended questions that I could use at work with my employees: (If any of you are reading, I hope this doesn’t ruin the surprise.)

*Asking Open Ended Questions: What brings you to my office today? What is your major concern about the project?
*Asking Clarifying Questions: I’m not sure I understand. Could you say more about that?
*Reflecting Content: So the project is on track, and until recently all of the stakeholders were on board…
*Reflecting Feelings: You sound really frustrated/upset/pleased.
*Reflecting Values: External colleagues seeing that you are good for your word is important to you, is that right?
*Reflecting Body Language: I notice that your arms were crossed and you were pulled away from the table during our group meeting today. Can you say what you were feeling or thinking?
*Periodically Summarizing: So things have been getting worse between you and George.

Speaking of problems, here’s one I would not want to solve myself: a fire hydrant that burst in my neighborhood last year.

I have three more days of training in mediation over the next two weeks, so I’ll post more of my lessons in applying this mediation training for managers as I go.

Life cycles of an organization

Organizations, just like individuals, undergo seasons in life. Each season is characterized by certain opportunities, challenges, and ways of operating. It has been helpful for me as a manager and Deputy Director to think about organizational life cycles and how our organization, like any other, is in a state of becoming rather than just being.

It was helpful for me to also have some perspective when things get tough and to know that this is normal, other organizations have experienced this before, and many more will experience this again.

As the Persian proverb says, This too shall pass.

I discovered these resources and the idea of Non profit life cycles thanks to one of my talented staff members, S.C.

The Fieldstone Alliance offers the Nonprofit Life Stage Assessment online for free. It takes about 20 minutes.

I’m curious to hear what you find out. If you take the test for your organization and post your results here, I’ll post my results and interpretation, too. :)

Saying no is the new yes

Today I want to share a great article by Tony Schwarz at The Energy Project on productivity and prioritization. On March 18, I took Tony’s challenge to take back my lunch for the rest of the month. I got so much out of it that I am not continuing well into April with my full hour long lunch breaks daily, usually offsite in a beautiful location such as the beach, the mountains, or the park. (I love living and working in Santa Cruz since each of these is only 5 minutes away.) I’ve been coming back from lunch full of energy and thinking clearly. People have remarked that I seem relaxed amidst the chaos.

In this article on saying no, Tony urges us to break the vicious cycle of the “madness loop” of back-to-back meetings, endless email, and putting out fires and instead take time to pause, reflect and prioritize.

Tony says, “We mistake activity for productivity, more for better, and we ask ourselves “What’s next?” far more often than we do “Why this?” He also quotes Ghandi: “A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”

I’ll let you read the rest of the article at the Harvard Business Review Blog. Thank you to The Management Center for sharing this in your newsletter this week!

Now it’s time for me to take my lunch break.

Stepping into a universe of possibility (part 2)


In my last post I wrote about the world of measurement and how beyond it lies a universe of possibility. I promised a technique for stepping outside of the world of measurement. But first, I’ll talk a little about the universe of possibility and how it is distinguished from the world of measurement.

In, “The Art of Possibility” the Zanders said, “In the measurement world, you set a goal and strive for it. In the universe of possibility, you set the context and let life unfold.”

In the universe of possibility, “…we gain our knowledge by invention…We decide that the essence of a child is joy, and joy she is. Our small business attracts the label, ‘The Can Do Company,’ and that is exactly who we are. We speak with the awareness that languages creates categories of meaning that open up new worlds to explore. Life appears as variety, pattern, and shimmering movement, inviting us in every moment to engage. The pie is enormous, and if you take a slice, the pie is whole again.”

It is a difference between a scarcity or survival mentality and one of abundance. There are enough resources in the world to go around for everyone, but if we act as if they are fixed and limited, then we will acquire more for ourselves no matter how much we have. We will treat all others as competitors. According to the Zanders, “Resources are more likely to come in greater abundance when you are generous and inclusive and engage people in your passion for life.”

The practice that orients you to a universe of possibility does so by revealing the hidden framework from which the world of measurement springs. Once you can see how thoroughly that framework rules your life you will have located yourself in the realm of possibility beyond it.

The way to step outside of the world of measurement is to reflect on what it is.

How are my thoughts and actions, in this new moment, a reflection of the measurement world?

And how now?

And how now?

And how now?

Try it!