The power of asking questions

Albert Einstein once famously said “Question Everything’ and when the events over the last 2 years have left corporate organisations with tired, stressed and demotivated employees, asking questions is more important than ever.

Research confirms that questioning and listening improves emotional intelligence, creates a learning culture, builds rapport and makes employees feel heard and valued. It makes us into better leaders.

As a coach, I spend most of my time in question asking and listening mode and the more I do it, the better I get. So how can we improve our skills in this respect and in doing so, support the wellbeing of our employees? Here are some things to think about:

Pause before going into “I have the answer’ mode

As leaders of teams, we are used to being asked for our opinion, to give our experience or expertise so naturally that is the mode we default to. It isn’t the most useful response however when trying to grow and develop your team. Next time when you are being asked for your input, pause for a minute. Assess whether you can be of more use guiding the other person to the answer. Put your coach hat on and take your subject matter expert hat off and see what happens.

Put your ego down

As human beings we just can’t help ourselves when it comes to showing what we know. We are eager to impress other with our thoughts, ideas and opinions. We want to be the one that is right. We want to be the one who has all the answers.

When you are the one who is always doing the talking however, others will stop. You run the risk of stymieing creativity, openness and inclusivity. Plus, it makes for a lazy workforce if your team know that you always have the answer or a particular view. They won’t bother forming their own opinion or putting in the effort if you always do it for them. When you feel yourself chiming in pause and ask yourself why you feel the need. Are others better placed to input? Can your employees work it out themselves? Could it be a more constructive conversation if you simply kept your mouth shut? After all, silence is golden.

Don’t worry about asking a stupid question

When I worked as a senior leader in financial services I operated in a culture where the more senior you were, the more you were expected to know. Asking questions was interpreted as a sign that you didn’t know the answer. It took a lot of guts for senior leaders to say, “I don’t know you tell me”.

There was also a real fear around asking questions. What if you asked the wrong one? What if it was a stupid question? What if you offended someone with your question? What if you were perceived to be overly intrusive? In today’s environment we are more wary of how we interact but next time you find yourself wanting to ask a question, give it a go. You can start with “I’m just throwing it out there but….” or “This may sound like a stupid question but….” The last time I checked, no one has ever been offended by being asked “What do you think?”.

Ask follow-up questions

When I work with leaders who are practicing, but aren’t used to, they find the art of asking questions clunky to start with. More often than not, they ask the first question and then when the other person answers, they revert back into expert or advice mode safe in the knowledge that they asked a question, so they ticked the box. Follow up questions are a really good way around this and are often more challenging because they require you to be generally curious and actively listen to the other person rather than just tick a box. Listen to what the other person is saying, and you will be surprised at how easy follow up questions become. If in doubt “tell me more” is often a good open-ended question that will simply encourage the other person to keep going

Ask open ended questions

One of the key tools a coach is taught is the power of open-ended questions. Open ended questions tend to start with what, why, who, where, which, when and how. Closed questions tend to start with can or do hence the responder is generally pushed into answering the question with either yes or no.  Open ended questions always (without fail) encourage more open dialogue and participation from the other person. Reflect on the questions you ask. Are they open or closed?

It’s not just what you ask but how you ask it

Conversation questions are generally better received than questions that are being fired at the other person. Whilst this may seem obvious, practising keeping the questions conversational as well as keeping non-verbal signs such as facial expressions neutral will help the other person open up more.

Get the sequence right

Asking tough questions at the beginning of a conversation during a tense conversation can encourage the other person to respond even if socially awkward to do so. The heat of the moment can be used to advantage and when you follow up with less intrusive questions, the other person will be more likely to proffer information and will feel more at ease. Conversely if you want to build relationship, start gently and then ask more direct questions as the rapport builds.

Asking questions and active listening can be one of the most effective ways of building rapport so even if you don’t get to the outcome you want, asking questions to build rapport and practise your skills and listening intently to the answers whatever they may be is a worthwhile exercise.