Leadership training programs aim to foster a broad range of cognitive, behavioral and interpersonal skills that executives and managers must master to help their companies thrive and grow. The list of skills that managers and leaders must develop can be daunting and overwhelming. Among others, they include strategic thinking, priority-setting, delegation, executive presence, nonverbal communication and collaboration.
It’s helpful to define a couple of essential skills upon which all the others depend – and that trainees in leadership programs can easily digest and remember. Pausing and inquiring are two overarching capacities and themes upon which managers and leaders ought to focus intensively, because they form the foundation for all other leadership skills. Without a well-honed ability to pause and inquire, leaders are unlikely to grow and, in worst-case scenarios, may damage their careers and their companies.
In any challenging or stressful situation, leaders must have the capacity to slow down, take deep breaths, think carefully and proactively chart a course of action. When leaders are overly reactive in the face of work-related stress, they run the risk of behaving impulsively and making ill-considered decisions. Interpersonal strain and conflict often occur when leaders fail to pause before speaking or acting. They may roll their eyes, raise their voices, or engage in a wide variety of other disrespectful and destructive behaviors.
With training, individuals can improve their capacity to pause. Mindfulness training, for example, can help people learn how to settle their bodies and minds and to avoid “fight or flight” responses. Mindfulness is best defined as nonjudgmental, present-moment awareness of sensory experiences. Leaders who receive training in mindfulness strategies, such as meditation and controlled breathing, and who practice these techniques on a regular basis (including before stressful events such as contentious meetings) are ideally positioned to pause and inquire.
When individuals are calm and settled, they can think clearly and ask the right questions of themselves and others. The inquiry process starts with self-reflection. In the complex and high-stakes situations that many leaders face on a daily basis, they can profit by asking themselves thoughtful questions about their values and goals. Once they have taken a “mindful pause,” they can ponder such questions as “How can I motivate my team around a core purpose rather than criticize them for underperforming?” Training programs can help leaders enhance this skill through self-reflection and writing exercises, followed by sharing and discussing the results with other members of the group.
In addition to self-inquiry, leaders ought to practice active inquiry of others using thought-provoking, open-ended questions. Rather than giving directives and instructions, effective leaders tend to start with agenda-free questions that convey respect and serve other purposes, such as gathering data about challenges to the business and empowering colleagues to identify creative solutions to those problems. In some scenarios, of course, leaders must give clear instructions – especially to new employees or direct reports who are performing poorly. But in most interactions, leaders can structure key conversations around open inquiry and dialogue.
Active inquiry is a skill that lends itself well to group training and coaching. The facilitator can demonstrate the process in front of the group by asking open-ended questions of a volunteer, who agrees to present a problem that he or she is facing. The conversation helps the volunteer gain a new perspective on the challenge and make a commitment to trying out a novel approach. After witnessing the method in action, trainees can pair up and have structured conversations that use this method. They later regroup to share key insights and takeaways. Many trainees report that the inquiry-driven conversations in seminars – and later in their day-to-day lives – enhance their working relationships by deepening respect, trust and collaboration.
When leaders master the arts of pausing and inquiring, they lay a strong foundation for thinking and communicating effectively. They are then in an optimal position to develop a myriad of other leadership essentials, such as strategic visioning and team empowerment. Since pausing and inquiring constitute the “basic science” of leadership development and are highly teachable, they ought to serve as the foundation of 21st-century leadership training programs.