Transforming Women’s Leadership: How listening & asking questions improve influencing skills

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Listening is key to honing your influencing and persuasion skills, allowing you to build connections even during quarantine.

This was the key take-away from the Art of Asking Questions to Influence, part of the second #shedevelops webinar event hosted by She Breaks the Law and Thomson Reuters Transforming Women’s Leadership.

Sheila Murphy, a business development and career coach for lawyers, suggested strategic ways to influence outcomes more effectively, including:

  • Listening;
  • Asking open-ended questions;
  • Using “we” to ask powerful questions;
  • Getting to the “win”; and
  • Understanding your clients’ language

In the webinar, Murphy broke down each of these key tactics separately:

Listening with full attention — Active listening — with your full attention and all five senses — is the first key step in influencing because listening signals that you are giving your full attention to the other person. Murphy suggested one effective tool called, WAIT, which stands for Why Am I Talking? This is important to remember during conversations, because if you are doing most of the talking, “it sends some of the wrong signals to your audience, which include ‘I’m more important than you,’ ‘I’m clearly more interesting than you,’ and ‘I don’t care what you think’,” Murphy explained.

Asking open-ended questions — Murphy also suggested using open-ended questions, which are those that require more than a simple one-word answer and some deeper thought on the part of the person being asked. These questions typically start with “how,” “what,” or “why,” and enable you to gather information and make people feel heard. It also opens up possible solutions and viewpoints of other people, especially those individuals who are shut down or not engaging. It works is because such questions “bring them to a different reality or vision,” she explains.

Asking questions is also an effective influencing tactic because you are engaging in the conversation yet inviting the other individuals to talk more. For example, here’s how open-ended questions can be used in a discussion between a compliance leader and business leaders concerned about cost during the pandemic crisis: “I understand that the coronavirus adversely impacted income. What are the risks of reducing compliance, and how can we mitigate them?”

From the outset, the compliance leader showed that she understood the objective and the problem. Also, the leader gained additional credibility because she linked the issue to a business and financial objective and then opened the discussion as to the risks.

Sheila Murphy

By asking the business leaders their views on the risks and their thoughts on mitigation, the compliance leader is not telling them that we must do this, instead she is offering to work together collaboratively.

Using “we” language — Using “we” versus “I” or “you” signals to the other parties that you are partnering with them to find a solution — one that all involved can buy into. From the example above, you will notice that “we” is used in the last part of the question, “How can we mitigate them?” Using the word “we” tells the others how we get to the next step in the decision-making process together. “This is us as an organization working towards a solution,” explained Murphy.

Getting the “win” — Persuasion and influence happens over time and over the course of several interactions. The time factor has important implications for finding the “win” because there are several small wins along the way. More specifically, the key to influencing is identifying a small win for each interaction on your way to the ultimate outcome or the big win. During the webinar, Murphy performed a role-play with a fictional COO of a law firm who was concerned about moving forward with an artificial intelligence project at the same time as another critical project on a new matter management system was just kicking off. The COO was concerned about distractions and stretching resources too thin. Murphy, in her role as pitching the AI project to the COO, saw her goal with the COO as getting to a “yes” to the initial discovery phase for the project and then to eventually get funding and resource approval.

Understanding your client’s business language — Using the same language as your clients is a compelling influencing tactic because it give you credibility as you seek to earn “trusted advisor” status with the client.

For example, rather than saying, ‘I think the business would benefit by enhancing its compliance program’, Murphy suggested the compliance leader could say, ‘I believe the business could increase customer satisfaction by X%, which is one of our major objectives, by putting in place an enhanced compliance procedure.’

The compliance leader could then continue, saying: ‘In other organizations where they’ve done this same enhancement, they’ve seen a 50% return on investment. Also, from a financial perspective, those organizations that have put in place these types of compliance procedures they’ve seen a 20% drop in payments to regulators.’

Increasing your influence

Using these tools together will greatly increase your ability to influence conversations and discussions in favor of your viewpoints. Indeed, these outcomes can have far-reaching impact on women’s advancement. Women sometimes are criticized and viewed as lacking leadership skills because “they don’t speak the language of business,” Murphy noted, adding that by using these strategies to increase their ability to influence outcomes more effectively, women can greatly enhance their leadership skills and their stature within the organization.

You can watch the full webinar and scenario-based role plays here: