As a leader, you must have access to information to help you make the decisions that guide your teams. Some of this information may come directly to you, but most of it will come through observation and inquiry. In other words- by paying attention and asking questions.
What’s fascinating is that with the exception of a few vocations like law, medicine, and journalism, most other career training does not consider the ability to ask questions a core competency, nor do you see it included in job descriptions. Yet being able to ask good questions can be the difference between an average leader and a great one.
Asking effective questions is a superpower because:
We can uncover challenges and develop better solutions in learning mode, rather than making decisions based on assumptions or judgments. Don’t just assume that if you’re not hearing anything, all is well.
It helps us increase the capacity and potential of those we lead. Asking your teams for thoughtful insight rather than giving them easy answers, helps them be accountable and learn to problem-solve for themselves.
Research has shown that those people who ask questions develop deeper connections and are considered more likable and passionate about their work. Asking others for their input shows we’re open to other perspectives, and we care about how things are going.
Asking better questions helps us improve our emotional intelligence by learning to read other people’s responses, emotions, and motivations, as well as becoming more thoughtful about our own responses and inquiries.
Better questions = better responses.
Here are a few key things to keep in mind that should help us improve this important skill.
1. Be engaging and aware of your tone. People can usually spot someone inauthentic very quickly, so be aware of your own body language and facial expressions. The more relaxed and genuinely interested you appear, the more likely people will lower their guard and respond to you. Work to keep your tone from becoming confrontational or accusatory because that immediately puts people on the defensive. Remember, you want to get to the facts, so keeping things neutral and non-judgemental will help you do that.
2. Ask open-ended questions. Closed yes or no questions give you no insight into the story or motivation behind the answer. You want to get beyond what happened to why it happened, and open-ended questions like how, why, and what can keep you from jumping to conclusions based on assumptions. These kinds of questions will give answers that can keep a conversation moving along, ultimately allowing you to reach a better solution because you’re working within more context.
3. Dig deep with follow-up questions. Follow-up questions signal that you’re paying attention, listening, and that you care to know more. The other interesting thing is they tend not to need as much preparation or thought because you’re conversing at this point. The answers come easier and more naturally so you may get more accurate information. It’s also best to begin with the least sensitive questions to encourage a comfort level and slowly work your way towards those that could prompt a stronger reaction.
4. Listen closely. Nothing is more annoying than having to answer the same question over and over, so listen closely and follow the story. And when you ask the question, pause and wait for the answer, for as long as it takes. Give them space to think and put together their response because an off-the-cuff answer is not what you’re looking for. We’re all a bit uncomfortable with silence during a conversation but resist the temptation to jump in and answer it for them.
Listen with your eyes too because body language is very telling. If you’re hearing everything is beautiful from someone who appears to be tensed up and anxious, don’t discount what you’re seeing. Asking questions like ‘tell me more about this situation’ or ‘how does this make you feel?’, can help people open up.
5. Pay attention to group dynamics. In general, if you really want to get to the bottom of something, having a one-on-one conversation might be the most productive way to do so. People tend to be most comfortable and open without a room full of others potentially judging them. And groups will follow one another’s leads, so even one or two closed-off or challenging people can sidetrack or shut down a conversation quickly.
Like any other skill, asking effective questions takes practice and awareness. So, pause for a moment before you begin searching for information and put some conscious thought into how best to ask questions that will reveal what you’re looking for.
“Asking the right questions takes as much skill as giving the right answers.”
— Robert Half
“There are no right answers to wrong questions.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin
“We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.”