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What is the Right Question?

(posted: June 5th, 2014)

This is Part 2 of our two-part series on Leadership, Listening, and Questions

In Part 1 we talked about using questions to encourage conversation, free speech and input from employees. Constructed well, these questions increase collaboration, teamwork, problem-solving and even innovation.

Now let's look at the questions themselves more closely.

Do Innovative Solutions Result From Questions?

Yes! If you are asking the "beautiful" questions.

Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, says, "A "beautiful" question reframes an issue and forces you to look at it in a different way. It challenges assumptions and is really ambitious."

This could be anything from the crazy questions, "Why can't we...?" that subvert the conventional wisdom, to the exploratory, "How might we better do....?"

Berger offers the example of the Polaroid camera, which resulted from a 3-year-old asking, "Why do we have to wait for the picture?"

Which Questions Motivate Ideas & Input?

Sometimes you need a specific answer to a question. But sometimes you need your questions to encourage thinking outside the box, and to make your team feel that you value their ideas, and trust them to do the hard thinking. These questions do double duty, delivering both short- and long-term value. Short-term, you get a solution to the immediate problem. Long-term, you help your team develop their problem-solving skills and enhance trust.

The questions you need to ask should:

  • Clarify. "Can you tell me more about this situation?"
  • Build Bridges. When you ask, "How are sales going?" there is no assumption or agenda and it encourages openness. If, instead, you ask, "Did you make your sales goal?" it can make the recipient defensive and wary, closing down any chance of an informative conversation.
  • Increase Critical Thinking. "What do you see as the consequences of choosing this option?" requires the individual to actually think analytically and independently.
  • Change Perspectives & Develop Innovative Thinking. "Why did this work, and that didn't?" & "What if we did this in reverse?" & "What other ways can we do this?"
  • Challenge Assumptions: "Why?" or "Why not?"
  • Create Ownership & Trust: "Based on your experience and what you know, how do you suggest we do this?"

When you talk, you repeat what you already know; when you listen you often learn something.

~ Jared Sparks

One of my all-time favorite questions is "What if?"

I encourage all my clients to ask this question, in many different situations. For the executives working on professional development, it's a great way to get them thinking and talking about possibilities, options, long-shots, and ultimately, wishes and dreams. For teams and other groups of executives, it can crack open their linear thinking and get them tossing around ideas. It's really an all-purpose question!

How Does Your Culture Encourage Questions?

Let your direct reports know that you value their queries. As I mentioned in the previous post, your questions themselves will let your team know if you are really interested in what they have to say, along with your genuine interest in hearing the answers.

Take careful note of how your questions are constructed. The most effective questions, as you already know, are open-ended, requiring more than a simple yes or no. They ask for opinions, thoughts and even half-baked ideas.

When you create an agenda for a meeting, make a list of thoughtful questions to ask. It doesn't have to be a long list. In fact, make sure you leave time for your questions to be answered, and remind yourself to really listen to what people have to say.

Why Not? Is a question that I like to ask clients.

Are You Listening? REALLY Listening??

Listening truly is the other half of the equation for leaders. If you ask, but don't listen, you'll stay right where you started. But if you listen, really listen, as I pointed out in the previous post, you'll find all sorts of answers you didn't expect. Keep in mind that simply not talking while the other person speaks is not listening! As Susan Scott, author of Fierce Leadership, says, "One of the greatest gifts you can give another is the purity of your attention. Not your advice!!"

What else? Is another question that I use with clients. By the time we get through the 10th "what else" we get to what is really on their minds!

What Do You Get When You Lead With Questions?

As you build your culture of openness and trust, using questions and fierce listening skills, you will eliminate ambiguity and create a team or group that is energetic, engaged, and invested in their work. You are also likely to get innovative ideas and solutions.

Remember as you work on leading by asking rather than telling, that their success is your success. When their problem solving skills, creativity and resourcefulness increase, your organization will be more productive and profitable.

If you are still trying to get people on your team to communicate more frequently and more openly, you may not be ready for these kinds of questions. That's okay, keep working on free speech and you'll get to the "beautiful" questions eventually.

Further Reading

Challenge Yourself
  • What is your response to "What if?"
  • What questions have you found be effective with your teams or with individual direct reports?
  • Was there a particular question you were asked at some point in your career that really opened you up?
  • What other experiences have you had with asking, or being asked, the "beautiful" questions?

Don't miss Part 1 - Change The Conversation: 5 Ways to Encourage Input...And Teamwork

Images licensed from 123RF


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