Engaging leaders spend as much time asking questions as they do devising and presenting their own solutions. If you love to be the source of all answers and the best solutions, you will likely limit yourself to asking analytical questions. You want to gather information so you can make your own decisions and solve the problem yourself.

To be more engaging, ask people the two most engaging questions in one of their many forms:

  1. What do you think?
  2. What do you want?

Other questions:

  1. Analytical questions – what happened, when, how many, where – asking for facts
  2. Experience or feeling questions – What has been your experience? How do you feel about that?

Analytical questions are not really engaging because you’re treating people as a source of information so that you can make your own decisions. Making your own decisions is fine if you’re the only one who really needs to own a decision and feel total commitment to it. This is only really possible in simple situations, like “What is the best time of year to visit Venice?” When you restrict yourself to analytical questions, you’re wearing a solution generator’s hat. You’re operating as an individual contributor, not a leader. Generating your own solutions means having no interest in being a facilitator or catalyst.

The greater the complexity and the greater the number of people who will be impacted by a decision, the more critical it is to involve them in deciding what to do. Again, this is not a matter of being fair to people. The self-interest angle is that fostering shared ownership is much more likely to motivate full commitment to any agreed action in others. Taking too much ownership on your own shoulders is self-defeating in complex situations where you really need the support or buy-in of a range of stakeholders. To get their full support, you must involve them in deciding what to do. This may seem obvious but it’s not as easy as it sounds given our natural tendency to create and sell our own solutions, based on the drive to dominate and win.

Questions about people’s experiences or feelings, in addition to asking what they think or want, are also very engaging. They can be helpful for getting to know people better or finding out how they feel about something. Such questions are engaging because you’re showing interest in other people’s perspectives and feelings rather than simply asking for factual information.

Analytical questions can be partially engaging in situations where what happened is not clear and you’re asking “What do you think happened here?” “What do you think caused this to happen?” However, these questions are not as engaging as those that ask people to suggest solutions to a problem, to make recommendations or offer advice.

The most critically important feature of engaging questions – what do you think, want, feel, experience, is that asking them means showing interest in people. Not many of us seem to realize this simple relationship point: that people will warm to you and like you more if you seem genuinely interested in them and their views or experience.

Sample “What Do You Think?” Questions

Suppose you want to create shared ownership of a solution to a problem with other people or get their help in creating a better solution than you can devise on your own. To find out what they think, ask questions such as:

  • What do you see as the essence of this problem?
  • What options do you see for solving it?
  • Which option do you think is best in your experience?
  • What are the pros and cons of your suggested option?
  • What other options do you see?
  • What risks or obstacles do you see and how might we address them?
  • What will your proposed solution cost and how can we bring the cost down?
  • Who might help us get this done?
  • How would you suggest we enlist their help?
  • Whose buy-in do we need and how do you think we can get it?

Sample “What Do You Want?” Questions

To pacify unhappy customers or partners, ask questions about what they want, such as:

  • What would you like to see happen?
  • What is your preferred solution?
  • What are your top priorities/needs?
  • What options would you prefer?
  • What is the best possible outcome for you?
  • How can we make this work better for you?
  • How can you help us fix this to better meet your needs?

More examples of engaging questions are listed later.

Where to ask Engaging Questions

Here is a list of some kinds of situations where you can benefit from asking engaging questions:

  • making your team feel more engaged and valued
  • fostering shared ownership rather than creating all the answers yourself
  • being less of a solution generator and more of a catalyst or facilitator
  • contributing more in meetings without having solutions of your own to offer
  • fostering creative thinking
  • negotiating with difficult people, overcoming resistance
  • developing people on your team
  • motivating commitment to a plan of action
  • improving relations with a client
  • getting to know a potential partner
  • being assertive without being confrontational
  • coaching team members or colleagues at work
  • showing empathy or understanding
  • becoming a more active listener

This book gives you lists of questions for multiple situations and explains the rationale for asking them to help you foster greater shared understanding and mutual benefit.

Asking engaging questions is a powerful form of leadership because it’s a way of moving people in new directions that has the potential to maximize shared ownership and a deeper sense of commitment in those who follow your lead. We said earlier that the prime function or purpose of leadership is to gain people’s commitment to a goal, target or vision. Engaging questions draw people toward you but it’s not a one-way influencing process, not when you’re generating genuinely shared plans and decisions. Still, if your questions are effective, you can lead people to places that you want them to go and to which they might not have gone otherwise. Conversely the authority-based leader who likes to generate and sell solutions independently uses a communication style that is primarily one-way.

SHOWING Leadership versus BEING a Leader.

You can show engaging leadership without being a leader in the conventional sense of having formal authority over the people you lead. If this seems odd, remind yourself of Martin Luther King Jr.  He did not make much use of engaging questions but he didn’t need to as he was a powerful orator. However, he showed leadership to a wide range of people over whom he had no formal authority. You could call it leading from the side rather than from the top. In reframing how we think of leadership, we will need to replace the idea of BEING a leader with the activity of SHOWING leadership. The former is a role while the latter is a sporadic influencing process.