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Great Leaders ask great questions (part 3)

Great Leaders ask great questions (part 3)

This is the third of 3 posts that focus on the value of questions in being a great leader.  In the last of the series, we explore the value of applying great questions in leadership context. Find part 1 and part 2 of the series.

Questions are only one of a leader’s tools in their tool kit. Although a critical resource, like anything, there is a best time and place for them to be used to be a great leader.

Applying leadership questions in practice:

Specific communication issues can be solved by asking great questions:
When a conversation (in particular, a negotiation) is stuck at a ‘content’ level, and people are taking rigid positions which do not allow compromise or collaboration, then shifting to ‘big picture’ questions allows us to break the impasse. Asking questions about purpose and relationships when content-type questions get stuck, allows those involved to see the content questions in context, allowing them to see how negotiating on a particular content topic where they previously wouldn’t have, helps get them what is really important in the discussion.

Shifting the questions to focus on the purpose of the discussion (the reason why it is important, what the conversations serves in the bigger picture) allows people to get some perspective. Questions like “What are we seeking to achieve by getting agreement here?” can open different lines of conversation and suggest other options of getting the conversation to where you want it to go. We can also switch our questioning to discuss how the relationship between disagreeing parties is important – this brings goodwill and purpose back into the discussion. For example: “We really value how our teams work together, and trust that between us we can get some agreement to strengthen how we do this. How else can we move forward and continue our excellent collaborative relationship?”

Sometimes we can unlock stuck conversations by using process oriented questions, such as ‘how do you decide X?’ or ‘How do you determine which option has the most value?’ When you work out how the other side makes the decisions (or to help them work this out for themselves), loggerheads can be broken down and steps to move forward can be created. Often, if someone has a process for deciding or discriminating which is ineffective, then this creates the circumstances which gets them stuck. For example, if someone has poor time management skills, the likelihood is that they have a poor process for how they prioritise things. Asking ‘how do you determine what to prioritise?’ explores their process, and once we learn that it is unresourceful, as a leaders we can mentor them to better ways of doing this.

When we ask questions which access fixed thoughts (what they know), then regardless of how we ask, how many times we ask, how intensely we ask, we will always get the same response. However, asking questions which force the other person to start thinking shifts them from their fixed beliefs into discovery. To achieve this, shift our questions to inspirational questions (inviting them to consider, imagine etc,) and softening them can make a big difference. “I wonder”, “What would happen if”,etc., are great examples of questions that encourage expansive thinking.

When not to ask questions:

Although asking questions is a critical skill for a great leader, so is knowing when NOT to ask questions. There are times when an authoritative leadership style is required, and asking questions simply gets in the way of action taking. For example, if the building is on fire, we don’t want someone to spend 20 minutes asking us questions. What is most appropriate in this circumstance is for the leader to direct positive action (everyone get up, walk to the door, down the stairs….etc). In this case, asking questions, regardless of how good they are, is not the right way to lead. Therefore a leader needs to understand when to ask questions, and when to simply lead action from the front.

What can you do next?

Consider what you can do next. If you pay attention to the questions you are currently asking, you can reflect on where they are they adding value, and where are they not. By preparing yourself by getting into the right frame of mind (curious, empathetic), deciding what type of questions are required (deepening questions, or expansive questions), and understanding how you can ask, add then gain agreement on the topic under discussion, you can have immediate impact as a leader.

In the end, it comes down to practice and your desire/frame of mind.
Using these strategies can make you a skilled questioner, able to help yourself and others open possibilities, create consensus, resolve issues and drive enhanced performance.
Learning the skills of great leadership, such as the use of language and asking great questions, are part of my coaching and training approaches. Please contact me if you would like to learn more.


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