Has it ever occurred to you that the quality of the answers you receive is dependent on the quality of the questions you ask? Consider these three conversations.
- I talked with a coachee about some career decisions he was facing. After a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons, he asked me point blank, “What should I do?” My response was to ask him a question: “Where is your heart?” He paused, then responded with a definitive answer. The right questions culminated in the most important one to help him decide.
- I met with a leadership team and asked them a set of questions about their business. Going into the meeting, it appeared as if they knew many of the answers. But by the time we finished the meeting, it was clear that they saw value in spending more time discussing and determining their plan of action. Taking the time to dig into the original questions opened the door to underlying issues that needed to be addressed.
- I met with a different leadership team regarding a new initiative for their organization. They asked me questions about my experience in their area of interest. I asked them questions to understand why they were undertaking this challenge. It was an interesting and thought-provoking discussion as we both walked away with more questions on our minds. But we recognized that the appropriate timing for asking and answering the next set of questions would come in the future.
We live in a culture where we value having the right answers to questions. Think about all the “problems” you may be trying to solve in your role. You’re no doubt working hard to find the answers. But are you asking the right questions? And are you looking at the symptoms or the underlying drivers? You have to be willing to invest time into improving the quality of your questions. Only then can you improve the quality of your answers.
The value of good questions
A great question addresses the core of an issue. It makes the hearer pause and think deeply because it taps into a place they may not have even thought about. Asking great questions can:
- Empower others. It encourages them to search and to own their answers.
- Encourage innovation as they challenge conventional responses to questions. This is the birthplace of inventions.
- Model curiosity to continue learning and development.
- Enable people to become resourceful in finding solutions to problems.
- Demonstrate concern for others’ well-being
- Challenge our assumptions and personal biases.
Take your time
Answers to complex and important questions take time. As leaders, you’re often expected to have the right answers or be an expert. People depend on you for instruction and insight. Emergency decisions need to be made. So, it’s easy to get wrapped up in needing to know. But leaders and teams can benefit from taking their time to make sure they’re asking the right questions. Quick answers come from a place of knowing. Thoughtful questions and their responses come from a place of learning.
Edgar Schein, the noted organizational development theorist, and former professor at MIT Sloan School of Management advocates learning humble inquiry in his book of the same name. He describes this as:
“the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person. It’s an essential art to collaboration, culture, change and leadership.”
Humble inquiry requires investing time in a lengthier discussion and the patience to wait for the other person to respond. The ultimate answers will be so much richer.
Asking better questions
We all have an opportunity to increase our capacity to ask better questions. We accomplish this by becoming more self-aware of our words and responses to others. By taking the time to understand the behaviors and situations occurring around us, along with the goals and objectives of the organization.
Here are several steps to focus on:
- Ask one more thoughtful question each day. As you reflect on your conversations during the day, when could you have asked a question that encouraged deeper thinking? Instead, you may have rushed to answer someone else’s question or simply accepted what someone said.
- Answer a question with a question. Your colleague may hate it because we’re taught to avoid that. But this transfers the power of the answer to the other person and gives them an opportunity to learn.
- Read an article on a topic you’re trying to learn more about. What assumptions does it include that may translate to questions? The most basic inquiry about an assumption is the most significant one.
- Ask “why” five times. You’ve likely heard this before, but how often do you do it? This forces you to take the time to really dig into an issue and uncover your own biases.
- In a discussion, listen for what you do and don’t hear. Then ask questions about important things that aren’t being discussed but should be.
- When faced with answers you don’t like, just meditate on that response and ask yourself why. You may discover more about what motivates you and what decisions you need to make next.
In an increasingly uncertain and volatile world, we will have fewer answers, and the number of questions will increase. We need to improve our ability to know the right questions to ask, to prioritize the most powerful ones, to know the right timing for each, and to be okay when answers are not readily available. Ultimately, as we improve the quality of our questions, we’ll improve the quality of the answers.
For more tips on working effectively from Archangel, read How to Tackle the Hard Assignments.