Using Curiosity and Questions to Help Your Team through Difficult Changes

“Whaaaaat is happening?” I nervously asked my colleague. We were both on a video call with our client (who I’ll call Dimitri) and his leadership team, and while I wasn’t in the room, what I could see and hear told me that the conversation was veering off track fast. I was supposed to be helping them scope the extent of their change, discuss the resources needed, and then plan how to communicate the change to the rest of the organization. Dimitri had already had several conversations with his team about the change before this meeting, and he had assured me that they were ready to move ahead, but that was decidedly not what I was hearing. 

Change conversations that don’t go as expected, like this one, happen frequently and can be “opportunity” moments if a leader recognizes them. If you can pause to listen and engage concerns instead of trying to force your team in a certain direction, you’ll hear important data about issues or potential obstacles that will get in the way of success. 

Sometimes you need to slow down in the moment to move faster in the long term. 

While I was still trying to figure out what was happening, Dimitri wisely recognized that this was one of those opportunity moments and slowed down. “Okay,” he said, “I get that you’re not sure this change is a good idea. I thought you were okay with it, but I can hear you’re not, so let’s take the time now and talk about your concerns.” 

Instead of ignoring how the team was feeling and pushing ahead with his own agenda, Dimitri engaged their resistance using the 3 Priorities of change leadership – Compassion, Communication, and Clarity. He used Compassion, inviting them to share their perspectives, and committed to hearing them. Then, practicing Communication, he asked the team to get into pairs and list all the things that could go wrong or were still unclear. He then took the rest of the meeting to discuss what was on their minds. With each specific concern raised, he practiced Clarity, providing more details or, if he couldn’t provide an answer, explaining what he was going to do to make sure the question or concern would be addressed. 

This wasn’t lip service to the team either. Dimitri is a driven yet responsive leader who wanted to understand the issues they were raising—issues that would have blocked the change moving forward if left unaddressed. After all, there would be no change without his team being on board and helping to lead the way. 

Dimitri was actively practicing all the priorities in real-time, but that conversation especially demonstrates the Compassion priority because he met his team where they were and tried to see the change from their perspectives. While I could tell that he was frustrated at times because he thought they were past this point and ready to move forward, he never tried to rush them. That extra hour he spent listening and addressing concerns and potential obstacles probably saved him many hours of additional work later.

These moments happen all the time, but most of us are so focused on an outcome or sticking to an agenda that we squander these moments, trying to convince people to get with the program instead of listening to where they are. Many of the leaders I have observed do a lot more “telling” than “asking,” especially when emotions start to run high. 

Recognizing when to pause, express curiosity, and understand how people are feeling rather than driving ahead, is especially important when you’re faced with team members who aren’t doing what you want them to do. Here are some signs: 

  1. When you find yourself saying the same thing over and over again, with increasing frustration and/or volume, then it’s time to stop telling and instead ask an open-ended question (eliciting something other than a yes or no response) to help you and your team figure out what the concern is. 
  2. When you are in a disagreement about the change, or some part of the change, with a team member, it’s time to stop debating (telling) and start asking questions and listening to their issue, challenge, or concern. 
  3. When you’re surprised that your team is not doing what you asked them to do to support the change, it’s time to check their understanding of the goal and gain clarity about the action steps or behaviors needed to implement the change. 

A simple rule of thumb on whether to ask or tell is that if you find yourself in a situation where the resistance is based on misinformation or miscommunication, then telling your team the correct information is a good start. If you’re dealing with an emotional reaction or resistance even after you’ve clarified the correct information, chances are it’s time to explore what’s going on by asking more questions. 

Tell or Ask?  

TELL when someone: 

ASK when someone: 

Going back to the three examples above, let’s look at how you might approach a conversation using the last example: When you are surprised because your team is not doing the things you asked them to do to support the change, first check their understanding of the goal, action steps, and expected behaviors as they relate to the change. 

You’ll begin by framing the conversation, letting the person know what you want to talk about. You’ll then ask some questions to make sure you have a good understanding of why they are behaving the way they are. Next, you’ll reflect on what you heard and share your observations and what you’d like to see them do differently. You’ll end the conversation by making an agreement on the next steps. Below is a conversation guide to get you started.

  1. Frame: “I’d like to talk with you about…I want to make sure we are both clear on the outcomes we are looking for and how you, and we as a team, can deliver on them, including how I can help.” 
  2. Ask one or more of the following: 
    • “Here’s what I am seeing/hearing (not seeing/hearing), and it’s causing…(or) the impact it’s having is…Is this a surprise?” 
    • “Are you clear on why we are making this change and what is expected from you?” 
    • “What do you think has been preventing you from moving forward?” (e.g., missing information, lack of clarity, external obstacles, disagreeing with the change or a part of it) 
  1. After listening to the responses, reflect back
    • “Here’s what I see you needing to shift/change…” (focus on two to three areas at most) 
    • “Are you concerned about anything I am asking you to do?” 
  1. Seek agreement
    • “What do you think you can do differently?” 
    • “What might get in your way?” 
    • “What strengths can you leverage to help you? 
      Here’s what I have seen you do well…” 
    • “What’s the first step you could take? When will you start?” 
    • “How can I help/what action can I take?” 

Continuing to follow up with your team as the change progresses, getting back on track when things derail, and celebrating big and small wins along the way will make it more likely that your team will have the information and support they need to take the change from an idea to a successful reality.

DR. ELIZABETH MORAN is an experienced leader, consultant, and executive coach passionate about helping teams and organizations successfully navigate and evolve through change. Partnering with leaders and teams from Fortune 500 companies to technology start-ups, Dr. Moran has successfully supported large and small-scale transformation through practical advice and actions that simplify leading through change. Before starting her company, Elizabeth Moran Transformation, she was Vice President of Global Talent Development at ADP. Dr. Moran holds masters and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies, PCC-level coaching certification from the International Coaching Federation, and a certification as a Neuro-Transformational Coach. She is the author of the upcoming 2023 release Forward: Leading Your Team Through Change, which was designed to make her practical change leadership approach accessible to all people globally.

Book Excerpt from Forward: Leading Your Team Through Change (January 2023), by Dr. Elizabeth Moran

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