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Great leaders ask great questions (part 2)

Great Leaders ask great questions (part 2)

This is the second of 3 posts that focus on the value of questions in being a great leader.  In the second of the series, we dig deeper into how and when to ask great questions to empower your leadership.

Once we have created the context and understand the value of a great question (as we explored in part 1), we then have to define what a great question would be.

What is a great question?

A great question advances the conversation; expands options, understanding and possibilities; and resolves issues. It is used as a way to open a topic, rather than close it.

A great question demonstrates parsimony. It is the simplest that it can be to get the result it seeks. Making a question complex, leading or double barrelled (who likes to answer two questions at once, do you know anyone?) can make it difficult for the person to answer clearly and concisely. A great question is set up so it is easy to answer.

Great questions are effective. They ask what needs to be asked to deepen or expand the conversation. Ineffective questions either cover old ground, or invite tangential thinking which does not add value to the conversation or move it to where it needs to go.

Great questions are tactful. This means that the questions can be heard and understood. They are phrased so that they match with the thinking and communication style of the person being asked, taking note of their language and incorporating their subjective experience. This means the person needs less effort to access the information or experience, and removes the potential for misunderstanding or defensiveness which can occur when non-tactful questions are asked.

If we genuinely are interested in what the person will answer, and we approach the person curiosity and empathy, then we create the space for great questions to be asked. When we think we already know the answer, or really don’t want to hear the person’s opinion, then this becomes obvious to the person being asked the question. This facilitates defensiveness rather than openness. Asking great questions involves creating compassionate, empathetic space for the answers to be given.

When do questions not work?

Poor questions close off options, limit thinking, create defensiveness and get people stuck.

Often we refer to these as ‘closed’ questions that have a specific response set (such as yes/no) rather than unspecified response set (no defined answer set).

However, we also can ask questions which appear open, but due to social conventions, provide a limited or closed set of responses. These do not encourage the conversation to progress, but rather to act as ‘verbal wallpaper’.

A classic example is when one partner comes home from work. The question “How was your day, dear?” often has a formulaic response. Depending upon the context, the routine answer might be ‘fine’, or ‘lousy as usual’. Once the person has responded to the question according to the ritual, the topic is closed off. In this way, questions that appear open are actually ‘closed’ as they are asked to only draw a socially context-dependant closed response.

The way to counter these social questions is to be more specific. Ask “What was something good that happened at work today?” – the response makes the person reflect on their experience and share something which can start or progress the conversation. Therefore, before you ask a question it is useful to consider if there are a series of social conventions relating to that topic or question which render it ‘closed’.

Specific questions are also useful when people present global problems (such as always, never, should, etc). By asking where/when/how/who specifically, we can uncover the issue or circumstance that needs to actually be addressed.

When we ask questions which are injunctions (‘why did you do X’) it leads to defensiveness. For example, many people ask questions when they really want to tell you what to do. When your partner asks “Why didn’t you put the bins out”, they rarely want to understand the motivation behind your inaction, but rather the message is “Put the bins out!” Injunction questions – virtually any question with ‘Why’ – leads only to justification and often defensiveness, which only works to make people feel defensive, pressured or manipulated, which destroys quality outcomes. However, in such circumstances, we can either make a suggestion or directive (“Could you please put the bins out?”) or ask the question in a way to leverage the information that we want.

When we keep asking the same thing but hope for a different answer, we are asking a bad question. It is critical that we listen to the answer that a person gives, and work out what follow up question is required to add value and move the conversation forward. If you just keep asking the same question and expect a different answer, then both you and the person answering the question will both be disappointed.

Types of questions and their application:

We can use questions in two specific ways; to explore the knowledge or circumstance; and to expand the possibilities of what is known or believed.
If we imagine the person’s knowledge, beliefs and subjective experience was a closed frame, the first way to use questions allows us to understand the frame and what is within it. These questions include:
• Determining current knowledge or beliefs (always a critical first step).
• Defining boundaries, including exceptions to what we believe is true
• Determining processes that people follow
• Establishing categorisation and sub-categorisation of current knowledge or beliefs
• Defining meaning of the information or beliefs that are already held.

The second use of questions seeks to expand the frame. This creates possibilities. It takes what we think we know about what we know, and opens up the space for more expansive thinking, so that we add to, remove or modify knowledge and beliefs. These methods include:
• Questioning the current boundaries of knowledge or beliefs, in particular exploring connections and additional elements which can be included.
• Testing the content, particularly for accuracy or relevance.
• Exploring categorisations and distinctions of what is known or believed
• Reframing the meaning given to what is known or believed.

These questions all force the person to stop being stuck in their current thoughts, and start thinking. By encouraging a transderivative search, the person has to explore outside the current structure of their knowledge, connect ideas in different ways and create new meanings for knowledge they already have.

These processes relies on us, as questioner, to recognise that knowledge and beliefs are subjective, and that by asking great questions from a place of curiosity and empathy, we help shift the person answering from their current thoughts to new ways of thinking. This can be through a greater understanding of their knowledge and beliefs, or through changing and expanding their thoughts and beliefs.

This can be summarised as starting with people’s current knowledge and beliefs, and then either drilling down into these, or expanding outward. Both of these approaches allow increased understanding and learning for both the questioner and the person being questioned.

How do we apply this in real leadership practice?

How can we find the right question for the right time?

Find out in part 3 of this series

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