Key Skills for Successful Data Leaders: Listening and Questioning

Welcome to the second blog in our five-part series that looks at the skills you need to succeed and excel as a data leader

In today’s data-driven world, successful data leaders possess a range of skills, from technical expertise to strategic thinking. However, there are two skills that stand out as critical for effective leadership: listening and questioning.

Why? Well, ‘listening’ and ‘questioning’ are key enablers of ‘coaching’, our #1 positioned skill, as well as the ‘creating an inclusive environment’ and ‘communication’ skills.

As we discussed in our blog 6 Benefits of Data Leadership Coaching for Your Organization, honing your listening and questioning skills contributes to improving employee performance and lowering staff turnover levels, as well as increasing engagement levels. When a key business challenge is attracting and retaining top data talent, these become vital skills to refine, so let’s dive a little deeper into each attribute. 

Listening

There’s a wonderful expression: You have two ears and one mouth and it’s best to use them in that proportion.

Listening is a fundamental activity that we all do, however the majority of people only do it at a certain level. For coaching conversations, we need to go deeper, we need to practice ‘active listening’.

A 2003 study from Lund University in Sweden found that “mundane, almost trivial” things like listening and chatting with employees are important aspects of successful leadership. This form of respectful enquiry, where the leader asks open questions and listens attentively to the response is effective because it heightens the ‘counterparts’ feelings of competence (feeling challenged and experiencing mastery), relatedness (feeling of belonging) and autonomy (feeling in control and having options).

And it feels good to be heard. Being listened to and feeling heard helps us to feel understood, validated, affirmed, valued, relieved, connected emotionally, and maybe even honoured to have someone listen to us so deeply.

It’s incredible what you can hear when you really listen.

What Are the Levels of Listening?

There is a great quote from Stephen Covey, author of the bestselling book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

It’s true: We often listen with a specific goal in mind, with the intention to reply, to share our perspective, or to convince the other person.

There are different stages of listening. What distinguishes them is where you focus your attention, as you listen to the person that you’re with.

Level One – Self

  • This classic conversational style of listening, and as Stephen Covey describes, it’s as much about you as the other person. Things said by one person will trigger your own thoughts or agenda. You could be focusing on any number of things. Maybe you’re thinking what to say next in the conversation, and so only half-hearing what the other person’s saying. Maybe you’re wondering what to have for lunch, or when to go mountain biking (my current preoccupation). The key thing is that in this Level One listening, you’re not really fully hearing the other person.

Level Two – Fully engaged

  • You are now intensely focused on what the other person is saying. You put aside your assumptions and understand what is really happening to the other person. Nothing’s distracting you. You are on a fact-finding mission.

Level Three – Active

  • You are again completely directed towards the other person, but it has a wider focus. You hear more than just the words they’re saying. You pick up on all sorts of other things – body language, the inflections and tone of their voice, their pauses and hesitations. It’s almost an out of body style of being in tune with one another. You can feel them straining to avoid something or pulling towards something – and you have a sense of what that might be.

Interestingly, the Chinese character for listen, “TING,” captures the full spirit of listening as it’s made up of 6 other words; You, Eyes, Undivided Attention, Heart, King & Ear, all of which accurately describes ‘active listening’.

So, what can we do to improve our listening skills?

To improve listening skills, drop all intentions of replying at any point in the conversation and only listen; and when those responses pop into your head, ignore them. Then when there is a pause in the conversation, and it makes sense to respond, go with it in real-time.

There may be more prolonged silences between taking turns in the conversation, and you may not even get to say much, but then you are trying to listen after all and in any case, short periods of silence where everyone can reflect on things can only be good.

Edward de Bono summarises it well:

  • A good listener listens slowly to what is being said.
  • [He] does not jump ahead nor does he rush to judge, nor does he sit there formulating his own reply.
  • [He] focuses directly on what is being said. He listens to more than is being said.
  • [He] extracts the maximum information from what he hears by looking between the words used and wondering why something has been expressed in a particular way.
  • It is active listening because the listener’s imagination is full of ‘could be’ and ‘may be’ elaborations.

Good listening is essential for data leaders because it enables them to understand the needs and perspectives of their team members, stakeholders, and customers. By actively listening to feedback and suggestions, data leaders can identify areas for improvement, uncover new opportunities, and make informed decisions that drive business success. 

Additionally, listening fosters trust and respect within the team, which is crucial for building strong working relationships and achieving organisational goals. Without effective listening skills, data leaders may miss important information, misunderstand others’ perspectives, and struggle to build consensus, which can negatively impact team performance and hinder business growth.

Questioning

Like listening, we are all able to ask questions. With coaching questions, the difference is they are asked to help the other person to think for themselves and learn, so can be very powerful.

The right coaching question at the right time can bring key insights that will change perspectives forever.

There is an art to asking coaching questions in the right way. Some questions work best in a sequence, each building on the previous one, while others work well individually, as a pattern interrupting the conversation.

When you work with great coaching questions, the trick is to find the one that fits the context of the conversation best. The question that serves the overall purpose you’re working towards with the other person. Some questions open up the imagination, others help set more specific goals or face one’s internal dialogue.

The reality is that most of us have the tendency to rush in giving advice to other people. Michael Bungay Stanier, author of several books, including The Coaching Habit and Do More Great Work. explains ‘If you really want to shift the way you show up to the world, you have to understand what it takes to change your behaviour and habits are at the heart of behaviour change.’

Being more coach-like doesn’t only help others, but it also helps the coach themselves, because it allows them to disengage from over-helping and therefore being less help than what they are trying to be.

The seven top questions that Michael recommends using are: 

  • What’s on your mind? – the kickstart question that lets the other person choose what they want to talk about and helps us get to the real conversation right away.
  • And what else? – this is the best coaching question in the world because it’s powerful. Usually, the first answer somebody gives is never the only answer and it’s rarely the best answer. What it does is it deepens and adds more value than any other question; it also serves as a self-management tool for the leader to slow down the rush to action and advice-giving.
  • What’s the real challenge here for you? – this is a focus question, and the key here is that the first challenge that shows up is almost never the real challenge. This question digs a little deeper into what really needs to be figured out.
  • What do you want? – this is a foundation question. Interestingly, most people actually don’t know what they really want. If they get clear on that, so many things fall away as they become laser focused on the things that matter.
  • How can I help? – the lazy question. It helps you calibrate how much you know and how much you don’t know. This question slows down people rushing into action and it’s a way to make sure that leaders understand them before jumping into action.
  • If you’re going to say ‘yes’ to this, what must you say ‘no’ to? – this is a strategic question that makes the opportunity cost more obvious.
  • What was most useful for you? – this provides greater insight into the other person’s thoughts, it reinforces the key points for them in their own minds, but it also frames the conversation as being constructive and useful.

Questioning is essential for data leaders because it helps them to gather more information and clarify understanding. By asking thoughtful and insightful questions, data leaders can gain a deeper understanding of complex issues, identify potential solutions, and make more informed decisions. Moreover, questioning can help data leaders to encourage critical thinking and creativity among their team members, inspiring them to come up with new ideas and approaches. 

Taking the time to listen and ask the right questions is hugely beneficial. By fostering a curious and questioning coaching style, that is less about giving advice and more about asking questions and searching for answers, data leaders and their teams will thrive. 

After all the mind is a muscle and the mental exercise caused by curiosity makes your mind stronger and stronger.

What will you try to do differently this week?

Our next blog in this series will look at gaining buy-in and its role in collaboration and delivering a successful strategy.

If you found this article useful and would like to know more about how to get your data presentations resonating with your audience to drive action and change, check out our course Presenting with Impact for Data Professionals or contact tony@nuatraining.co.uk

About Tony Lamb

Tony Lamb is a Director of Nua Training and Lamb Direct Consulting Ltd.  He has over 30 years’ experience of launching and running data businesses and building high performing teams. His last inhouse role was as Head of Data Strategy at Royal Mail.

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash 

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