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Questions as Leadership


February 2007

Through his coaching, a leader learns how the brain reacts to different questions and begins using them with his team. He learns three tools that completely change his effectiveness as a communicator.

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February 2007

Questions as Leadership

Tom Henschel

Roger is a scientist. When he became a team leader he knew he would need to develop his people skills. After observing him with his staff, I suggested we focus on his skills as a questioner. Being a scientist, he wanted to know why. I told him he often asked questions that stifled, rather than encouraged, interaction. He found this delightfully curious so we explored how to ask questions so he’d get the results he wanted.

One of the first things I did with Roger was to ask him to just sit back and react to a question of mine. I then said, “Do you have any questions?”

If someone asked you that question right now, what would you do? Most people automatically shake their head, indicating, “Nope, no questions here!” We learn while still in grammar school that this is the safe answer, the “right” answer. I wasn’t surprised when Roger automatically shook his head in answer to my question.

Then I asked Roger, “What questions do you have about this?”

He did as many people do upon hearing that question. He disengaged his eye contact and looked up at the ceiling. Suddenly he was turned inward, accessing his own thinking. A quite different response to essentially the same question. The scientist in Roger was fascinated when I pointed out his widely differing reactions to extremely similar questions.

The first question (“Do you have any questions?”) is close-ended. It asks for a brief answer, in this case, a yes/no answer. Close-ended questions are perfect when you’re looking for agreement, or specific data, or want to draw a discussion to a close. Other close-ended questions are:

  • “When can I expect to see that?”
  • “Are we going forward with the promotion or do we need approval?”
  • “Any reservations about this?”

Roger’s tendency was to ask close-ended questions even when what he wanted was interaction and discussion. At those times close-ended questions stifled, rather than encouraged, discussion. We worked to develop his skill asking open-ended questions that invite broad thinking and participation. For example:

  • “What do you want me to take away from this?”
  • “How does that sound to you?”
  • “If we went that direction, what do you think would happen?”
  • “Tell me more about that.” (While this last example isn’t a question, it certainly invites broad thinking and participation!)

When he began employing open-ended questions, people started telling him what was on their minds. He found he had to learn to be quiet and listen!

Roger had another tendency that didn’t get the result he wanted. He loved to ask “why” questions. “Why did you do it that way?” Or “Why did you tell her that?”

His intention in asking “why” questions was to satisfy his curious mind. Unfortunately, no matter how well-intentioned, a “why” question provokes a defensive response. When I asked him four “why” questions in a row, he found himself becoming defensive, so he was willing to learn alternatives. They’re surprisingly simple. For example:

  • “That’s interesting. What was the thinking behind that?”
  • “I’m not sure I understand that yet.”
  • “Tell me more about that.” (Yes, here is that same phrase again. It’s really useful.)

Another substitute for a “why” question is a gesture. Palm up, hand parallel to the floor, then flip all four fingers back and forth as if signaling “come here.” When done with a tilt of the head and an inquiring look it clearly means, “Keep talking.” And people do. Roger loved this. He felt like Obi Wan Kenobi using The Force on unsuspecting storm troopers.

Because Roger was truly brilliant, he moved through the world quickly. And, like many of us, he harbored the belief that people are fundamentally the same as himself. The result was that he often assumed people were with him when in fact he’d left them behind. Not surprisingly, his group often struggled with management and accountability issues.

I urged Roger to ask, at the end of a topic, “What’s your understanding of what we just discussed?”

Roger resisted this one behavior more than anything we worked on together. He felt it would show lack of trust and sound condescending.

I acknowledged his feelings but stuck to my guns, urging Roger to try it and see what happened.

Once he began asking people their understanding, Roger was astounded: people’s understandings of what had been discussed were wildly different from what he thought had been discussed. Being basically generous and objective, Roger willingly took responsibility for the communications gap. He gladly clarified details to reach mutual understanding. What chilled him was thinking about all the years he’d been assuming there had been understanding when there probably hadn’t been!

Roger found this question (“What’s your understanding of what we just discussed?”) created two profound changes. First, it forced him to stop assuming there was understanding and agreement. Second, it greatly enhanced his team’s performance and accountability. About a year after I worked with him, I heard it had become a sort of signature of his: people knew to expect it from him and they liked it.

There are innumerable ways to use questions as a leadership tool. The three ways discussed here are:

  1. Open- and close-ended questions are different. Use each with intention.
  2. Avoid asking “why” questions.
  3. Ask what people understand about what’s been said, then work together toward mutual agreement.

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