by Karen Smith, MBA, PMP

In part 1 and part 2 of this series, we looked at the value of asking questions, why questions are not asked and how to facilitate a more inquisitive and innovative culture in your organization. In this third and final post, we will suggest tips and best practices for asking questions effectively, in a way that truly benefits you, your team, and your organization.

The Problem | The Solution

Admittedly, asking questions can create problems either with the actual questions themselves or by not having a questioning culture.

Problems include:

  • Asking leading questions, such as “Do you agree that Sam is not pulling his weight?”
  • Only asking questions selfishly – e.g., when I know I have to make a decision
  • Provoking defensiveness in others – e.g., “Why did this happen?”
  • Corporate cultures that may have an aversion to bad news
  • Executives may find it easy to accept good news unquestioningly and investigate only when there is a problem (Enron, WorldCom, General Motors)
  • If a Board refuses to ask questions, a powerful message is signaled throughout the organization for people to keep their heads down

Solutions include two critical skills:

  • Knowing what questions to ask
  • Knowing how to ask questions

Knowing what questions to ask comes from listening to conversations and then thinking of questions to obtain even more information. Listening also involves hearing what isn’t being said, and allowing people to complete their thought, which keeps focus on them versus you. You may then reflect back on what you heard and observed. By doing this, you will learn, know and improve more. In addition you will probably “interfere” less during meetings and conversations. Switching to questioning versus telling will take your leadership abilities to a new level; not to mention will help build a more collaborative culture within the organization.

Let’s focus momentarily on a dictatorship or a “telling” culture. Do you want to know how to win every argument and persuade everyone into thinking that your ideas are the right ones? Stop trying. It won’t work. Communication will absolutely breakdown … every time.

Once you’re in a heated debate or being told what to do, the team is no longer focused on the best solution and exercising its brain power; they just want to win by any means necessary. Everybody wants to win, including you. This source of the difficulty lies in who comes up with the solution, but only if credit is demanded for the idea. You won’t get any wiser by verbally bludgeoning people. You get wiser by learning through questions. Winning an argument is a short term ego victory. Losing an argument can be a learning experience that benefits you for the rest of your life.

A 360° Look at Questions

The words we choose disclose a lot about how we think and what we believe, and it also may reveal our attitude. Many times the way our questions are worded suggests how we expect people to behave and the outcome we believe is imminent. The goal of questions is to not appear clever, feed the ego, or elicit an interesting response, but rather to be selfless and supportive in learning and internalizing different perceptions so a better outcome can be achieved.

Questions can be a lens that focuses attention on a particular area. When people are asked questions, they are sent on a mental journey in search of the answer. That journey can be positive, productive and inspiring, and can produce fresh perspectives. Empowering questions get people thinking and allow them to come up with their own answers (bonus: instant buy-in) and, thus, they sign up for the ownership for the results.

Personally, in my marketing research and competitive intelligence interviews, I’ve found that the best questions are based on what was just provided as an answer, and then building on that foundation. By doing this, I am saying, “I heard what you said, and am interested in what you had to say by asking deeper questions to ensure I understand your perspective completely.” Empowering questions include:

  • How do you feel about the team? (Affective question)
  • How do you feel about the project’s Stage One outcome? (Affective question)
  • What has worked well in getting the team motivated? (Explorative question)
  • How can we duplicate our successes from Project X to Project Y? (Explorative question)
  • Which objective do you think will be easiest/most difficult to accomplish? (Explorative question)
  • What kind of support do you need to be successful? (Explorative question)
  • What is a viable alternative? (Explorative question)
  • You said you had some issues come up. Can you more fully describe your concerns about proceeding on this critical path? (Reflective question)
  • I recognize there have been some resources we need to backfill. What will you commit to do and by when? (Reflective question)
  • What do you think about …? (Affective or Explorative question)
  • Tell me more about … ? (Probing question)
  • What would happen if … ? (Explorative question)
  • What do you plan to do next? (Explorative question)
  • What other ways can we achieve the outcome we desire? (Explorative question)
  • Have you ever thought of … ? (Explorative question)
  • What other resources can we tap into? (Explorative question)
  • Why must it be done this way? (Fresh or Challenging question)
  • Why has this happened? (Analytical question)
  • What specifically did you mean by that? (Clarifying question)

Note that these are open-ended, non-leading questions, which allow the respondent to fully think and answer the question. Why questions are considered the most important type of open-ended questions since they delve into cause and effect. But be aware of your tone when asking why questions, since you want to show your curiosity and thirst for knowledge rather than your anger or frustration.

Why questions can be extraordinarily powerful, especially when you ask why again. In fact, ask “why” questions five times in total. You’ll be amazed at the real root cause of some issues. At the very least, you’ll leave those whom you’ve questioned feeling heard and respected. Ironically, why questions can also help the person being questioned articulate what they’ve not been able to articulate before. Figuring out and getting to the root cause can be tough work for all!

Closed questions tend to focus on what, when, and where facts, and can be useful to the beginning and end of conversations. For example, at the beginning of a conversation, you may ask, “Is this a good time to talk?” At the end of a conversation, you may confirm the following: “If I can deliver the project by August 1, do you agree that this will be considered a success?”

However, questions can also lead to journeys that are not positive; producing defensiveness and self-doubt, where people are mired in their problems and in being considered part of the problem versus part of the solution. Disempowering questions include:

  • Why are you over budget?
  • What’s wrong with the project?
  • Why are you behind schedule?
  • Who isn’t pulling their weight?

It’s in Your Mind

Two different mindsets exist when asking questions: 1) learning and 2) judging. In the learning mindset, natural and genuine curiosity takes place; the person seeks to understand and exudes optimism, possibilities and hope. (AKA win/win.) The judging mindset is reactive and focuses on blame. (AKA win/lose.)

A learning versus judging mindset can be heard in the following statements: “What can we learn from this?” versus “Why is this a failure?”

Finding out what happened and why doesn’t mean finding out who. Eventually who will need to be answered; however, for the purposes of your project goal, what and why will lead you closer to devising a plan for a successful outcome. The focus remains on improvement and continuous learning, rather than on complaining and venting.

It’s in Your Delivery

When asking questions, it is recommended that you focus on the questioner and the question to show your genuine interest. Maintain a steady pace and timing, and keep eye good contact. Be sure to show your appreciation when you receive a response. A simple “thank you” can work effectively.

Besides asking the right questions, if interested in going a step further in building rapport, I encourage you to hone your communication skills using neuro-linguistic programming and body language (see Forward Momentum’s Beyond Words course) so that your words, tone, actions and body language are all congruent. By mastering this skill, it will help others believe your intent and trust you, and it will help boost the all-important rapport you need to successfully navigate through projects and relationships.

To Sum Up

We discussed several things in this article, but here are a few high-level takeaways:

  • Check your ego at the door: Lead with questions for leadership purposes, not to win for winning’s sake.
  • Flex your brain’s muscle: Use your brain to think of questions that will get you closer to your end goal. It’s tough, and you might get a cramp once in a while, but you and your organization will be better off for it. Asking skillful questions is more difficult than giving advice.
  • The art of questioning is about being sincere in wanting to: Learn versus blame; Listen to responses openly and non-judgmentally; Follow up on the conversation with action.
  • Ensure your words, tone, questions and body language are all “saying” the same thing. You will build trust and rapport more quickly.
  • The difference between leaders and managers is that leaders are those who ask the right questions; managers are those tasked to answer those questions. You choose which seat you’d like to occupy.
  • You become what you ask about.
  • Practice makes perfect.

Go ahead. Take the plunge. Ask the tough – but sincere and genuine – questions. I dare you to flex your brain muscle and make a difference.

What are your thoughts on all of this?