How to agree on something

The foundation of a healthy working relationship is agreement. Even when people have differences of opinion—and they always will—getting everyone on the same page about broader goals and individual motivations produces better outcomes.

As a manager, you can use a few conversational techniques to create powerful agreements that drive productivity and job satisfaction. Let’s take a look at a couple of them.

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Once upon a time, a generally accepted method for a manager to create agreement was to tell everyone what they had to agree to. Though that may sometimes still be necessary, the time of command-and-control managers is behind us.

In the past a leader was a boss. Today’s leaders must be partners with their people; they no longer can lead solely based on positional power.

—Ken Blanchard

Growth-oriented teams that continuously build awareness and find the overlaps between their individual motivations and the team’s goals will produce more and better work and be more satisfied with their jobs overall.

Creating that “overlap” or “alignment” first requires knowledge. You must understand each individual’s motivations, the team’s goals, and how those ladder up to the company’s purpose. You are in a unique position to listen for motivations, share goals and purpose, and reflect this information in a useful context.

How to ask questions that uncover real insight, share ideas in a way that maintains a trust partnership, and drive accountability with respect are core concepts in systemic coaching. Practice these, and you will learn things you otherwise would not and build deeper trust with your teams.

Creating agreement is all about uncovering what is actually important, putting specific and concrete words and measures around it, visualizing how we want things to be different, and then committing to take steps in that direction.

Getting to a ten

One way to discover very specific and actionable opportunities when things feel subjective is to apply a numeric scale to them. Let’s say you’re in a one-on-one and you ask “What’s going well for you right now?”

Your direct report might say something like, “My current project is progressing and I think I should be able to finish it this week.”

That’s useful information; they believe that they will finish the project soon. To get even more out of it, you might then ask, “Rate how your project is going on a scale from one to ten, with ten being ‘absolutely perfect.’”

Typically, people will answer something less than 10. Perhaps they say “Well, I guess I would give it an 8.”

Awesome. Now you can respond, “Great, seems like things are going well, at about 8 out of 10. What would it take to make it a 10?”

This example is contrived and simplistic, but what to notice is:

  • The numeric scale takes something vague and subjective and creates a concrete point of reference. Once you know that the way things are now is an 8, you know that there are a lot of things that could have made it worse, and a few things that could probably make it better.

  • Asking about what could make that 8 into a 10 does two important things:

    • It acknowledges the individual’s own observation of how things are; it doesn’t assert your own view of what you think.

    • It causes a more constructive, creative assessment of opportunity. The person came up with the number 8 somehow, and you’re just asking them to dream up anything that could fix the problems they otherwise may not have mentioned.

You can apply this scale technique to practically anything. Try it on things where numbers don’t even make sense! The point isn’t to devise the perfect scientific experiment, it is to inspire the creation of new ideas.

Open-ended questions

When you are seeking agreement, you are exploring the landscape of ideas. What you are looking for is what needs to be done to align what everyone wants. The most effective way to uncover information is through open-ended questioning.

A “closed-ended question” is one that has a specific set of possible answers. The simplest form of closed-ended question is one that can only be answered “yes” or “no.” For example, “Is this your coat?” is a closed-ended question. Either it is or it isn’t.

An “open-ended question” is one that has a nearly infinite number of possible answers. Most questions that start with “what” or “how” are open-ended, but what’s important is not the word they start with but the phrasing. “What would you like to do about that?” is open-ended, as is “How could we change that?”

The caveat to open-ended questions is that you should try to avoid asking questions that start with “why.” Asking for explanation or justification can put people on the defensive, and unless that’s what you’re trying to do, it tends to choke off creativity and produce less useful answers.

Most closed-ended questions and “why” questions can be converted into open-ended “what” or “how” questions, and with a little practice, you can do it almost instantly. Let’s look at a few examples.

  • Instead of “Why did that happen?”, try “What caused that to happen?”

  • Instead of “Did it work?”, try “What worked about it?”

  • Instead of “Could you do it differently?”, try “How could you do it differently?”

Notice how these subtle changes in phrasing invite a more detailed and creative answer. You will use the information you learn to construct a more accurate overall context for how individuals, the team, and the company are aligned.

“That’s right”

The final piece of the puzzle is evidence of agreement. Even if what you are hearing is what you expected, or lines up with your own view of the world, you can’t always be sure that your interpretation is correct.

Asking confirming questions and looking for that final, conclusive evidence of agreement is how you create airtight alignment. It may sound easy, but as a manager you must also mitigate the “invisible gun effect,” which is the possibility that people tell you what you want to hear because you hold power over them.

A “confirming question” is just rephrasing or summarizing what you think you heard and asking if you got it right. As a coach, I ask confirming questions constantly, and you’ll hear me use a bunch of common preambles:

  • “It sounds like…”

  • “I think I heard…”

  • “It seems as though…”

  • “The story I’m telling myself about this is…”

These are ways to introduce your interpretation of the facts as exactly that. By prefacing your question with one of these, you create a distance between yourself and the topic at hand, which makes the other person feel safer to address the issue and not your opinion about the issue.

Finally, you want to ask whether you heard it right. This is one time when closed-ended questions are OK. You could ask “Is that right?”, but I tend to go for something looser, like “How does that sound?” or “What do you think?” You’re still asking for confirmation, but in a more open way.

What you’re looking for in the end is “That’s right.” The distinction here is that you do not want to hear “You’re right.” When someone says “You’re right,” they’re actually capitulating to you. They’re accepting your view, the way you said it.

Not only could your view be wrong (perish the thought), but their interpretation of your view might not even be correct! The cycle of rephrasing and confirming is not over until they say some variation of “That’s right.”

Questions for you

  1. What could your team be misunderstanding each other about right now?

  2. How can you integrate the practice of rephrasing your questions as “what” or “how” into your one-on-ones?

  3. What is one positive outcome you hope to achieve by creating stronger agreements?

Lead image by Midjourney AI