How Can I Influence Others With a Shovel?

I am not sure if you are anything like me, but I find I am too often tempted to engage people proactively with my “t-shirt cannon of wisdom.”  Like a strange combo of a minor league mascot and rogue Dr. Suess, I am known for shooting off my advice here, there and everywhere.  I am a dad, I write a blog, I run a community of practice at work and I help lead people at church,  all of which provide great opportunities to explosively and generously share what I am convinced are helpful nuggets of advice to the people in my circles and the public at large.

What if that isn’t the most helpful approach? What if the pearls of wisdom I offer, despite my best intentions, are completely counterproductive to learning? I was treated to a great lesson on influence recently at a conference I attended. There I learned that my efforts to share may not always have the desired effect.  The speaker, Justin Elam’s message was one about how to better equip others by asking questions vs. providing “ready to use” answers.  The outline of his talk started with this Strauss quote:

“The wise man doesn’t give the right answers.  He poses the right questions.”

In his talk, Justin was clear that we all desire to have influence over others and we all want others to take action and/or change. Elam tells us that is OK to want to influence others as long as our motives are more about wanting something more FOR someone than manipulating them for our gain. He described how communication is our primary tool for influence and that the best way to elicit changes and responses that “stick” are by letting people uncover and dig out their own answers by handing them what he terms “golden shovels.”

These so-called golden shovels are questions.

Justin shared that asking questions allows people to discover their own ideas that will serve to “precede and initiate action.” He asserted that insights people arrive at through self-discovery are superior because we tend to value “what we work for” more than what is simply handed to us.  In addition, he reminded us that we tend to take more ownership of the concepts we feel we uncover or “dig up” ourselves than those shared with us by others.

Elam offers us an invaluable lesson, and for those of us who follow Jesus, it is not only valuable, it is biblical.  Jesus taught in thought-provoking (and often perplexing) parables and by asking questions.  He is Elam’s model for instructing us how to enable others to dig with these “golden shovels” rather than defaulting to a much less elegant t-shirt cannon style delivery system of shooting off answers. Whether you are a believer or not, I hope it is easy to see how this method might be more effective in influencing others.

Next time you are straining to share some profound thought or advice with someone, please reflect back on Justin’s advice and challenge yourself to ask questions instead of providing the advice directly to the person.  Maybe you can make a game of asking enough of the right questions that lead your friend to the same idea, you may have shared, on their own? If you find you are successful, maybe you can join me and look for a new use for your t-shirt cannon. I personally have always wanted to fire one of those bad boys at church!

A powerful question:

•generates curiosity in the listener

•stimulates reflective conversation

•is thought-provoking

•surfaces underlying assumptions

•invites creativity and new possibilities

•generates energy and forward movement

•channels attention and focuses on inquiry

•stays with participants

•touchea deep meaning

•evokes more questions

source: The Art of Powerful Questions

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