Questioning Discipline in Congress

At the start of the Cohen hearing earlier this week, presiding congressman Elijah Cummings said the House Oversight Committee was in search of the truth.

But as the hearing showed, many of his colleagues found it hard to stick to the script.

Caroline Fredrickson, the president of the American Constitution Society, wrote In an opinion piece in The New York Times:

“… instead of asking probing questions and eliciting damning evidence from Mr. Cohen, too many committee members chose to make a speech.”

In her article, she referenced Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker, who tweeted in frustration:

“Bipartisan incompetence in the questioning at #cohen hearing. All they do is make speeches, and fail to listen to answers or follow up.”

Was it effective? It all depends on what you’re after.

One thing is certain: making political statements typically doesn’t help you get closer to the truth. If your desired outcome is to have a roadmap for further investigation, you need to elicit information that can help corroborate the testimony - especially when it concerns someone with credibility issues.

As I explained in a previous blog, effective questioning requires discipline. In most situations, it’s best to keep your questions simple and focused on their intended purpose.

Fredrickson noted one positive exception in the Cohen hearing, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

Like a good prosecutor, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was establishing the factual basis for further committee investigation. She asked one question at a time, avoided long-winded speeches on why she was asking the question, and listened carefully to his answer, which gave her the basis for a follow-up inquiry.

The congresswoman from New York earned widespread praise for her performance, and as GQ noted: “… she didn’t even need all five of her allotted minutes.”

In a cheerful tweet, Ocasio-Cortez attributed her effective questioning skills to her previous life as a bartender and waitress. "Forces you to get great at reading people + hones a razor-sharp BS detector.”

But of course, that’s not the whole story. She later retweeted a HuffPost article, which describes how she thoroughly prepared for this moment together with her team.

You can watch the result right here.

Connected Talking and Deep Listening

When a conversation with your spouse or a colleague ends in frustration and misunderstanding, it’s easy to blame the person on the receiving end. “You’re not listening!”

Similarly, when you read blogs like this one or this one here, you might get the impression that listeners are solely responsible for creating better conversations.

Of course, that’s not true.

Couples therapist Traci Ruble points out that we should pay more attention to how we talk. As she explains in this Wall Street Journal article, talkers are usually “too active”:

“The talker starts on a roll and never checks to see if they are being listened to, and the listener starts to feel objectified and thinks: ‘Do you even notice that I am here or are you just anxiously pouring out all your thoughts?’”

The better alternative is what Ruble calls ‘connected talking’.

As she lays out in the article, connected talkers are mindful of the listener’s point of view. Before launching into a conversation, they check whether this is a good time to talk and provide a hint as to what the listener can expect from the conversation (do you want to share happy news, or do you need advice?). And while talking, they stay connected so they are able to pick up cues as to whether the listener is feeling overwhelmed.

In other words, the connected talker makes it easier for the other person to listen.

The article reminded me of my podcast conversation with Australian executive coach Oscar Trimboli. Oscar introduced me to the term Deep Listening, which means listening more consciously at all five levels - not only for the words, but also for yourself, for context, for what’s not being said and for meaning.

As I noticed in our conversation, a deep listener is also a role model in how he or she talks. Oscar speaks slowly, uses a lot of pause and makes it easy for the other person to listen.

As you can read here, Oscar is on a quest to create 100 million deep listeners by 2030. We probably need a similar goal for connected talkers, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they are the exact same people.

Writing vs. Typing Your Notes

Over the weekend, I read an interesting Twitter exchange about how VC investors can make meetings more pleasant for founders. One of the discussion points was whether you should take notes by hand or use a laptop.

I must admit: it’s tempting to bring a laptop or tablet to meetings. Typing your notes will make it much easier to decipher them, share them with colleagues and store them in a CRM or whatever system you use.

But what’s the point of having these notes if the meeting failed to deliver?

In a previous blog I wrote:

Great listeners understand that they’re easily distracted and they’re not afraid to demand the right circumstances to listen.

If you want to be effective in meetings, you have to be aware of internal and external distractions. In the latter category, screens are among the worst. If you type your notes, there’s a big chance you’ll get caught up in what happens on your screen (especially when you haven’t switched off your email notifications) and miss important points.

Plus: academic research indicates that writing by hand is better for retention.

Are you ready to ban laptops from your meetings? Here are a few quick tips for taking better notes by hand:

  • Focus your preparation on what you want to get out of the meeting, so it’s easier to decide what’s important or not. Some people develop a form of shorthand to speed up their writing, using keywords and symbols. That could work, but it’s even better to take fewer, more relevant notes.

  • The first thing I try to do after each meeting is to go through my notes and add whatever context is needed to make sense of them later. This also provides a good opportunity to highlight important points and connections.

  • A smart pen might be a good solution if you want to easily digitize, store and share your handwritten notes. Examples are the Moleskine Smart Writing Set and reMarkable, which uses a paper tablet. (Disclaimer: I haven’t tried these products myself, so please don’t consider this a recommendation.)

  • Divide up the roles. When doing the meeting together with a colleague, discuss in advance who’s going to take the notes so the other person can be more engaged in the meeting.

  • If you feel you really, really have to type your notes (for example because you are working off a longlist and are still in the phase of meeting dozens of founders), make it a habit to put aside your laptop and listen intently for the first 5-10 minutes. That’s the least you can do.

The Twitter thread I followed mentioned the term ‘founder NPS’. I like that.

Even if you are a listening Jedi and don’t feel distracted by your laptop, you have to consider the other person’s point of view. How would you feel if you were looking at the back of a screen while pitching the most important idea in your life?

Life Lessons From Dale Carnegie (Part 1)

Most people interested in interpersonal communication consider How to Win Friends & Influence People mandatory reading. While I devour anything that’s even loosely related to this topic, it was only a few months ago when I finally picked up this classic.

There’s a reason why I had ignored it for so long: I thought it was a gimmick.

I mean, how could a billionaire have written a book on this in the 1930s that’s still relevant today? That’s just too good to be true.

As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

First of all, it was not the steel billionaire Andrew Carnegie who wrote the book but Dale Carnegie who dedicated his professional life to this. Secondly, it’s nothing short of a masterpiece filled with invaluable lessons about what Carnegie calls human relations: the fine art of getting along with people in business and life. His starting point are the universal truths about human nature, which indeed haven’t changed much in the more than 80 years since the book was first published.

Why I started reading it despite my initial resistance?

A few months ago, I read an article about how Warren Buffett overcame his fear for public speaking in his early 20s. He signed up for a Dale Carnegie course, which made such a lasting impression that he still displays the certificate in his office more than half a century later. As Buffett later explained:

“You’ve got to be able to communicate in life and it’s enormously important. Schools, to some extent, underemphasize that. If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.” 

Who am I to contest one of the greatest investors of all time?

I don’t want you to make the same mistake as I did. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing my most important insights from the book. So please stay tuned.

Why Do Negative Questions Prompt Negative Answers?

I recently read a 2017 HBR article about the gender gap in venture capital meetings. What stuck with me is that 85% of entrepreneurs responded to questions “in a manner that matched the question’s orientation.”

Let me explain this.

The researchers analyzed Q&A interactions between VCs and entrepreneurs to determine why female founders receive considerably less funding than their male peers.

They discovered that VCs posed different types of questions to male and female entrepreneurs: men were asked about the potential for gains (promotion questions) and women about the potential for losses (prevention questions).

Here’s an example from the HBR article:

“A promotion question would look into customer acquisition, whereas a prevention question would inquire about customer retention.”

The impact on the fund raising process is significant: entrepreneurs who were asked mostly promotion questions raised about seven times more than those who received prevention questions.

Circling back to my initial point, the overwhelming majority of founders responded to promotion questions with promotion answers, and to prevention questions with prevention answers.

This makes me wonder: do people have a natural tendency to respond in this way? If so, how can this be explained? Why are we so obedient to a question’s orientation? And does this occur in any situation or only under certain circumstances (for example, when the stakes are high)?

I’m wildly interested in this topic. If you happen to know about any psychological or neurological research on this, please send it my way!

A quick word on how female founders can close the gap in their next VC meeting. My first thought is that they could hugely benefit from techniques used in media training to reframe the question. Don’t respond too quickly and focus your answer on the Roman Column, as Jerry Weissman describes in his book In The Line of Fire.

I’ll write more on that in a later post.

Am I Allowed to Speak?

I’m fascinated by the role of power in meetings. Why? Because it can ruin our interactions. Consider the following situations:

  • A judge forcefully reprimands a juvenile defendant who’s eating chewing gum in “his” courtroom.

  • A doctor listens for 18 seconds to the patient’s story and then shares his diagnosis in a language that no one outside the medical world can understand.

What happens? Powers gets in the way of a meaningful interaction. The defendant will become defiant or shut down completely; the patient will not feel heard and will be less likely to follow the doctor’s prescriptions.

In organizations, power has many shapes and forms.

A good example is the power of agendas. They are useful because they provide structure and order to meetings, but they can be damaging if they’re enforced too rigidly. If checking agenda points becomes more important than the quality of the discussion, people might feel discouraged to ask questions and share important ideas that are outside the scope of the agenda.

Or worse: they become afraid to speak up because they fear repercussions or because they feel that their opinion is irrelevant. 

Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies the phenomenon of psychological safety, explains why this is a serious problem:

“If we aren’t hearing from people we may be missing out on a game-changing idea that could become part of a new product or a new service. Or we might miss an early warning of a threat in the market… The ability for people to come to work and speak up about what they know, what they don’t know, what they see, what they are worried about, is absolutely mission-critical to success in a knowledge economy.”

If you want to address this issue, the design of your meeting is a good place to start.

What’s your place at the table, who gets to speak first and how does the agenda come together? These questions matter.

A powerful example comes from author and surgeon Atul Gawande.

In the hospital where he works, each surgery is preceded by a discussion of the patient’s case. At the start, all attendants who are new to the meeting – from the anesthesiologist to the nurse, to the clinician and the surgeon – have to introduce themselves by stating their name and role.

As Gawande recently explained on The Knowledge Project podcast: “People who haven’t been able to introduce themselves are much less likely to say anything in the course of the meeting. But if you’ve actually been able to hear yourself in the room say: ‘I’m here, this is who I am’. That removes your barrier of wondering whether you’re even allowed to speak.”

How Can We Meet With More Intent?

“We accidentally curate who comes to the meeting, who has a seat at the table where decisions are made… What if we thought deeply about who sits across from us during the key conversations?” 

Seth Godin kicks off the week by asking an important question.

Our meetings are guided by habit. That's why even top CEOs, some of the most time-constrained creatures on this planet, are stuck to 1-hour meetings. Why can’t they be 45 minutes, 30 minutes or less?

The problem is that we tend to take our meetings for granted. We complain about them, but we don’t ask the right questions to make them better. That’s why they run too long, why they lack direction and why they fail to engage participants. According to the 2017 State of Enterprise Work survey, workers consider wasteful meetings the biggest challenge to getting their work done. 

As Godin rightfully asks, what if we did it with more intent?

The first step to becoming more conscious about how we meet is to define a clear purpose. In her book The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker eloquently explains that “we often make the mistake of conflating category with purpose.” A weekly team meeting is a weekly team meeting, which means the team gathers on the phone or in a physical room. But to what end?

If you think you are gathering “to talk, to brainstorm or to bond”, you have to try harder.

Before any gathering, meeting expert Mamie Kanfer Stewart suggests defining a desired outcome that starts with a noun, not a verb.

What’s the one thing you want to have at the end of the meeting that you don’t have right now? This could be a list of five ideas about how to tackle a certain problem, or an agreement on how to split the budget between two departments. A tip from Kanfer Stewart: make your desired outcome as specific as possible, so you can use it as a metric to determine if your meeting was successful.

When you know your meeting’s purpose, it’s much easier to decide who should be in the room to create a productive gathering. As Godin puts it: “Convenient should not be the dominant driver of this choice. Nor should existing protocol.”

So let’s break the habit and ask ourselves why we are meeting in the first place. It will save a lot of time and will eventually lead to happier employees and improved decision-making.