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December 13, 2017
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Why everyone needs to stop, ask, and listen

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If you don't know the answer to a question, chances are someone in your network does—but you'll have to understand how to get them to give you the information you need so you can put it to work.

No one is expected to know everything. Fortunately, there are a lot of smart people working in supply chain management. If you don't know the answer to a question, chances are someone in your network does—but you'll have to understand how to get them to give you the information you need so you can put it to work. This may sound easy enough, but it is actually a complex transaction.

To pinpoint the sources of the information they actually need, and then draw that information out from the people who have it, successful managers follow three steps: stop, ask, and listen. "Stop" involves taking the time to figure out what information you actually need. "Ask" means posing the right question. And "listen" requires actively engaging with your source and thinking about his or her response.

Step 1: Stop
The first step can be easy if you are clearly told what knowledge you need to acquire. For example, you may be asked to provide a vetted list of potential suppliers that fulfill diversity requirements, or a cost analysis of different shipping methods. But sometimes it is not so easy to determine what information you need—especially as your career advances and your responsibilities broaden to include complex tasks like the leadership and direct management of others. For example, suppose you are tasked with opening your company's first distribution center in South America. Where do you locate it? Whom do you hire? What are the cultural and environmental sensitivities you must take into account?

In these cases, you should stop and think about what it is that you really have to know ... and be honest with yourself about what you do not know. Do you need facts? Opinions? To understand the reasoning or logic behind a situation?

But simply identifying the information required is not enough. You also must determine the right sources of that information. Who has the knowledge to fill in the gaps?

Step 2: Ask
Once you know what information you need and who might know it, think about what type of question will elicit the necessary information. Like tools, different types of questions do different types of jobs. The three types of questions are: closed-ended, open-ended, and hypothetical.

Closed-ended questions elicit an answer from among a discrete set of possibilities. For example, if you ask, "Will you make your budget this month?" the answer is either "yes" or "no." This type of question elicits a quick, black-or-white answer; it does not leave room for a nuanced response.

Open-ended questions are designed to engage a person more deeply. There are an infinite number of ways to answer an open-ended question like "Why do you think our shipping needs will outpace our supplier's ability to fulfill them?" This type of question gives the respondent an opportunity to share his or her knowledge and/or opinions in detail.

The last kind of question is the hypothetical, or "what if," type. Hypothetical questions can provide a window into how the respondent thinks and reasons. For example, "What are our delivery options if diesel fuel hits US $5.00 per gallon?"

To help you remember when these three types of questions would be most appropriate, try to think about them in the context of a job interview. The close-ended question can be used to determine basic information. "Have you managed people?" The open-ended question is used to bring out the detail. "What was your most meaningful leadership experience with your team?" The hypothetical question can bring out creativity, logic, and resourcefulness. "What would you do if someone was sabotaging your team?"

Finally, there are two more types of questions you should be aware of: the leading question and the loaded question. Leading questions suggest the answer. For example, "The shipment will arrive on time, right?" Clearly, the desired answer is "yes." The loaded question has implicit assumptions in it. For example, "When will you stop making bad forecasts?" The implication is that all your forecasts are bad. Both of these types of questions are not going to move your knowledge base forward. These are questions that are not looking for an answer; they are conveying information. Stay away from them.

Step 3: Listen
After you ask your question, make sure that you really listen to the answer. That may sound self-evident, but it's not. Listening is a skill—one you can and should improve.

Have you ever been in a meeting where people started to talk before others were done? And no one even listened to what the others were saying—they just waited for their turn to talk? This kind of "communication" is a waste of everyone's time.

Listening abilities lie along a spectrum, and it's important to honestly assess what kind of listener you are. To get the most value out of what people are saying, you may need to change your attitude.

The spectrum starts with ineffective listeners who are just waiting to talk, and progresses to reluctant listeners—people who may feel they have "heard it all before" and are unwilling participants. Next are the passive listeners. These people are sitting quietly but are not absorbing anything; their minds are somewhere else. Judgmental listeners hear what is being said but won't let the meaning sink in. They have already made up their minds, and nothing they hear will change their opinion.

And then there are the selective listeners. I've been guilty of this myself in the past. My children would call me at the office, and I would be multitasking or checking my e-mail while they told me about their day. My mind was divided, serving neither task well. Now, regardless of who calls, I stop what I am doing and focus on the caller. I expect it of others as well. When I start a meeting, I set ground rules, one of which is no phones, e-mails, or texting—nothing that takes the focus away from the business at hand. (And don't think you are fooling anyone when you say you are using your iPad for "taking notes.")

And that leads directly to why we all need to be active listeners. Active listeners focus on what the speaker is saying. They communicate their attention to the speaker both verbally and nonverbally. They make eye contact. When in agreement, they nod their heads. If the situation allows, they ask probing, open-ended, and/or clarifying questions.

Active listening means hearing what is being said and thinking about it at the same time. Keep asking yourself questions about what the speaker is saying. Does it make sense? Did I just hear something I didn't know? Should I ask follow-up questions?

Asking thoughtful, engaging questions will not only elicit valuable information from the speaker, it will also affirm to the speaker that you heard what he or she is saying and are an active participant in the conversation.

Consequences and rewards
There are consequences for failing to stop, ask, and listen. If you keep talking without asking questions, you become the "know-it-all" who is not a team player. If you stay quiet without asking questions, you can be perceived as too timid or unable to grasp the issues. Neither advances your knowledge or your career.

By stopping, asking, and listening, supply chain managers will be sure to engage in rich and mutually rewarding conversations that will give them the information they need to carry out their responsibilities effectively and professionally.

Tim Stratman is founder and president of Stratman Partners Executive Coaching Inc.

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