May 21, 2021 / Esther Choy
“Welcome! We’re here today to discuss the upcoming product shipment and get all hands on deck. Thanks, everyone, for being here on time. Let’s get started!”
This is often the way business meetings begin: efficiency and professionalism are front and center.
But what if we started more like this?
“Welcome! Before we get started, let me ask you a question. What did you think was stupid until you tried it?”
Rissa Reddan, SVP of Marketing for Commercial Business at Equifax and Leadership Story Lab Certified Storytelling Facilitator, starts her team’s virtual meetings with questions like this, defying convention and creating space for attendees to tell stories.
Wait, you’re probably wondering, is that really the best use of time? When we want to be efficient and professional, it’s easy to see questions that prompt reflection and conversation as a waste, when in reality they are a powerful business storytelling tool.
3 Surprising Results of Making Time for Questions
Reddan asked herself the same question: should I really make time to start with a question when the agenda is already so packed? It is hard to make room for seemingly “irrelevant” topics. There’s always too much to do. But after taking the initial risk, she’s seen surprising results.
And she’s not the only one.
Bauman’s time is also quite crunched. She has 30-minute sessions with clients and prospective clients who start off as complete strangers, except for the resumes she gets from them in advance. So she sends them a question to reflect on before the meeting.
Here are three results Reddan and Bauman have been excited to see as they’ve applied this business storytelling tool.
1. Antidote To “Languishing”
Asking a good question at the start of a meeting creates a pause that gives attendees a chance to connect, says Reddan, and everyone has been enthusiastic about this.
The questions have helped everyone get to know each other, since meetings include a mix of her direct reports and others. “It helps everything when there’s a baseline relationship in play,” says Reddan.
During the pandemic, such relationships have become even more important. Adam Grant’s New York Times article on the feeling of “languishing” illustrated that to Reddan.
“Languishing,” says Grant, is “the void between depression and flourishing…. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work.”
Questions, says Reddan, are an antidote. They can create a flow state, a term first coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Grant describes flow as “that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away.”
Self-reflection is a meaningful challenge that creates bonds.
2. Rocket Fuel Finder
We are all in a competitive admissions game, as I describe in my book Let the Story Do the Work. That’s true whether we are applying to an MBA program, like Donna Bauman’s clients, or trying to land a dream job or just hoping to recruit a friend to join us in a cause. Every day, we are hoping to hook attention in a sea of competing priorities.
Bauman has experienced first-hand how thinking about open-ended reflection questions prompts clients to figure out what differentiates them, especially during stressful situations when imposter syndrome creeps in.
“Almost everyone feels inadequate about some part of their MBA admissions profile,” says Bauman. In light of this, she helps her clients “focus on what is special and interesting about themselves.” In the competitive admissions game, “they need to become more than a job title,” she says.
She believes her clients can change themselves somewhat. For instance, they can take courses to boost their GPA. But Bauman thrives on helping people understand the parts of themselves they can’t change – and may not even want to change. She wants to help people find their “rocket fuel,” learning what really drives them.
Open-ended questions find the rocket fuel. Bauman’s tried-and-true formula is to ask questions that get people to bring contrasting elements together.
For instance, she asked one client how his hobby of preparing gourmet meals connects with his career in private equity. His answer revealed that both require anticipating what people would experience and delighting them. “His meticulousness in wanting to create the perfect meal for his guests related to his approach at work to go above and beyond expectations in finding the best investment partners,” says Bauman.
Questions like this reveal connections between parts of our lives we might otherwise compartmentalize, and allow us to move from describing what we do to why we do it.
3. Connection Catalyst
Good questions lead to interpersonal revelations as well.
At marketing meetings, Reddan invites everyone to answer the reflection question at the start of the meeting. If it’s one she thinks people might find difficult, she answers first. Then, when it’s others’ turn, she doesn’t rush them. A few beats of silence can allow people’s creativity to flow.
Reddan has been surprised by how open people are. Her questions ask for personal answers, but they are really about character, which lets people get to know each other and build trust. And when someone tells a story that gets into “that quirky space” of who they are, Reddan says she is “all ears.”
Perhaps that’s because if Reddan was a superhero, she would want to be “Connector Woman,” as she puts it. She is on the lookout for the ways that people’s responses to the questions can lead to further connections.
For instance, when she asked, “What is one thing you have spent way too much time, money or energy on but have no regrets?” a meeting attendee mentioned spending too much money on a coffee delivery service. Learning about this service led Reddan to connect with even more people because it turns out the company has coffees called “Barry” and “Stacy.” This prompted her to recommend this as the perfect anniversary present for a friend named Barry whose partner’s name is… you guessed it… Stacy.
Everyone benefits from getting to know coworkers’ and clients’ stories. Take the risk. Start using this business storytelling tool. Try asking one question and seeing the results. Bauman and Reddan share their favorite types of questions here.
And if you want to immerse yourself in learning how to draw out others’ stories, I am happy to help! Learn more about the Certified Storytelling Facilitator training I offer.
Better Every Story
"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.
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