Asking about behaviours

Asking about what people see and hear can go a long way to help clarify and resolve difficult problems that often start out about feelings and ideas.

Like many technologists, I often find myself in difficult organisational situations that I think I know a way out of. That’s because lots of difficult organisational situations involve technology, and because we technologists are good at sharing ideas, so it’s understandable that we think we have a solution to situations we understand.

But having a solution and implementing that solution are two entirely different things. It’s too easy to attempt to implement a change only to get push-back for reasons that may or may not be clear.

Thus it’s particularly important to understand people’s point of view when they perceive a problem. That involves extra time in speaking to them, before rushing to action, which can be annoying — after all, planning is the boring bit; doing is seen as the fun bit. So how can we get the most out of those initial exploratory conversations as quickly as possible?

One technique I’ve found valuable is to ask about behaviours. Some examples:

  • “What do you think about X?” followed by “What have you seen that makes you say that?”
  • When someone attributes a motivation to someone, asking what they’ve seen and heard that leads them to think that.
  • “What would you like to see changed?” followed by “What would you expect to see people doing differently if that happened?”

I find the answers to these questions tends to transform my perception of a situation and any personal interpretation I might have added without justification. It can immediately reveal that the perceived problem is either not there or is actually a different problem — the interviewee having jumped to a conclusion. You can use the opportunity to explore that with them. It can simplify the problem, bringing it down to something concrete and tangible. It can also shape a solution, clarifying what success looks like.

There are lots of tools for enabling constructive conversations in difficult situations, but I find most of them are too complicated to remember in the heat of the moment. A very simple one like this, asking about behaviours, is one I can remember and it yields good results.