Pull Not Push

October 13th, 2014 | Coaching Leadership

Guest Post by Lucy Seifert

You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions (This quote, by Naguib Mahfouz is, of course, equally applicable to women)

Giving difficult feedback is sometimes a challenge for even the most experienced leader. As a coach I am often asked the most effective ways of addressing poor performance and behaviour. Two examples are:

  • Having to confront a senior manager when people complain of their intimidating style of management
  • Dealing with embarrassing personal matters of speaking to a member of staff with BO or halitosis!

There are lots of similar situations; many people find them hard to handle. So how can leaders use questions to help elicit open discussion and deal with these tricky circumstances?

Pull and the art of questioning

The opening of the feedback process is pivotal to building a positive foundation. ‘Door Opener’ questions enable you to obtain information and give the respondent space to express it their way. An example of a door opener is the simple: “How are things?”  You may follow with more specific door openers, such as: “How are the current projects progressing?” or “How are you getting on with the team?

Such questions form the main wrapping (of the key issue to be addressed). Within the wrapping is a bundle of questions (see examples further within this post). The bundle of questions promotes a discussion which addresses under-performance and difficult behaviours.

The pull ‘questioning’ style – as distinct from the push ‘telling’ style – empowers the listener. This discourages dependence and reverse-delegation. You are inviting them to review and offer feedback on their performance and ways forward by seeking both the facts of the situation and their perceptions. Enquiring what suggestions they have, building on their ideas and pooling your own will enhance their commitment to their projects, you and the organisation.

The mesh of skills

The skill of the person giving feedback is to be heard. This will enable the recipient to:

  • Listen to what may be difficult whether about work performance or behaviour
  • Encourage creative solutions
  • Agree a timeframe for actions

This calls for a range of skills from the leader imparting the feedback:

  1. Assertive Skills in clarity of objective, being specific, and ability to empathise without necessarily agreeing
  2. Conflict Resolution in identifying common ground and co-operative problem solving
  3. Listening Skills in being attentive and using following skills and reflecting back
  4. Linguistic Skills, using positive words and reframing inflammatory language used by the recipient
  5. First-class Questioning Skills which will be threaded throughout all the above.

 Buckets, tumblers and thimbles

The feedback process starts before your discussion. It not only in obtaining the evidence needed, but in recognizing that people have different capacities to listen to and respond to developmental feedback. This difference in capacity is described as people behaving like ‘buckets’, ‘tumblers’ or ‘thimbles’. 

Buckets are receptive to feedback and may ask for it. They welcome ideas that will help them improve. However, you may meet a ‘bucket with a hole in’. This person asks for lots of feedback which simply goes ‘straight through’; so nothing changes. Alternatively, they have less capacity to cope with difficult feedback than they say. They therefore become overwhelmed and demotivated.

Tumblers can take a limited amount of feedback, a few key pieces of developmental information.

Thimbles are the least secure; they may lack self-esteem, may have had an overdose of criticism in the past. One item of difficult feedback is quite enough for thimbles. They may take it personally.

Feedback may trigger recollection of a painful experience and emotion from a person’s past. Constantly watch for how the person is responding, don’t overload them. Adjust the pace and content according to their reactions and responses, while keeping your objectives clearly in view.

Since people can only cope with so much, ensure that you prioritise the issues before you start, then focus on the most important. After all, if the person turns out to be a thimble, you may only be able to address one, so make sure it’s the most important.

A bundle of questions

All this is most effective when combined with a model for counselling poor performers*, whether on behaviour or work aspects

  • Give positive feedback, conveying what the person is doing well
  • Give developmental feedback: explain and give evidence where change and improvement are needed, what you expect in contrast to the actual performance,  highlighting the gap between the two
  • Ask for their feedback and perceptions (give them an opportunity to respond)
  • Ask if they are aware of the gap between expectation and performance (self-appraisal) or if they are aware of the situation if confronting a matter like personal hygiene
  • Ask what they have done about it so far (obtain information)
  • Ask what options they have, what solutions they could put in place (invite creativity and responsibility) to meet the challenges
  • Ask what they need (e.g. help or resources) to achieve it
  • Ask what they will do and when they will do it, their priorities and a timeline (action plan)
  • Ask them when they think it will be appropriate to review (monitoring)

Ask, ask and ask again – whilst also pooling your own ideas and suggestions without imposing them.

A constructive approach

The art of questioning is most effective when embedded within:

  • Constructive communication
  • Pull principles
  • Useful models of feedback for the purpose of developing staff

Building trust and giving reassurance of your confidentiality on sensitive issues are more likely to produce desired outcomes. Regardless of the level of seniority, we are all human.

Negative feedback is more beneficially viewed as constructive or developmental. This will encourage recipients to treat it not as criticism but as helpful guidance, support and ways of enhancing achievement. In reality feedback isn’t always given this way, and may not be given at all, leaving the organisation and colleagues to deal with the fallout!

One thing is for sure at work – we will all receive feedback. Sometimes this will be done well, sometimes it will be well-intentioned but in unpleasant packaging. At other times it will be memorable, motivating and move us to achieve beyond expectation. Our experiences of receiving feedback will ideally inform us when it is our turn to engage in the subtle art of giving motivational feedback.

Ultimately, our ability to question effectively can make the difference between conflict and commitment.

*Counselling Poor Performers   Ash Quarry Productions

Lucy SeifertLucy Seifert is London, UK-based Life & Executive Coach who specializes in assertive communication and is author of several books on training assertiveness and empowerment.  www.lucyseifertcoaching-training.co.uk   info@lucyseifertcoaching-training.co.uk


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