Asking good questions can vastly improve our success at work and relationships with people. Good questions engage people, make them feel valued, build trust, cement relationships and foster joint ownership of decisions.
Although we recognize that we need to get things done through people to be successful, we limit our chances of success by telling or selling our ideas to them, thus not fully tapping into their potential.
When we want information, we ask questions. To influence people, we make statements to tell or sell them our ideas. Statements are limited, however, because people only half listen and, as a result, forget readily. We make it worse by giving them more detail – a waste of time if they have tuned out. Or worse, we come across as condescending, acting as if they need a lot of detail to get the message.
Because nobody likes to be told what to do, statements work best when we're asked for information or advice. But when we want to influence people, statements are not the best approach. Questions are more effective when they encourage people to come to their own conclusions, hopefully ones that you want them to arrive at.
There are basically two kinds of questions: (1) those that ask for information i.e. "What happened?" and (2) those that ask people to share their views, feelings or ideas i.e. "What do you think?"
Uses for Questions
- Solving problems
- Engaging people
- Influencing tactics
- Showing empathy
- Motivating people
1. Solving Problems
Both kinds of questions, analytical and engaging, can be used to solve problems. We limit ourselves by asking analytical questions exclusively and risk disengaging people.
Liking to be self-sufficient and do our own thinking, we like to ask people analytical questions to get the facts we need to make our own decisions. This is pretty selfish when you think about it because we're treating people like databases, not respecting or valuing them as valuable sources of potential solutions.
By contrast, asking people what they think, creates a partnership and shows that you value them as equal partners or collaborators, not just as a source of information. This approach has great potential to generate better solutions.
We generally aren't aware of the biases and limitations of our own perspective. We're good at rationalizing our ability to make objective decisions, a defense mechanism we all draw upon. It's also well known that we tend to form opinions quickly; we then gather information to justify our initial hunch. Thus we limit our analytical questions to seeking support for our preconceived views, not a formula for making very objective decisions.
A mixture of the two kinds of questions can be powerful. Consider these examples;
- What exactly happened?
- When did you first notice it?
- What did you think caused it?
- What do you see as a solution?
The first two questions ask for information but the last two ask for the other person's ideas or views. The point is to recognize the difference between the two kinds of questions and to consciously shift back and forth between them so that enough information is uncovered while, at the same time, others feel like you are involving them in generating a solution. You are not just using them to generate your own conclusions.
Engaging people in solving problems has a greater chance of leading to an objective decision than any one person might do alone.
2. Engaging People
A lot is written about employee engagement. Unfortunately, there is little difference between what is generally talked about under this heading and what we used to call employee motivation. In both cases we want to motivate employees to do their jobs as sole contributors.
But this approach does not foster teamwork, collaboration, partnership or shared ownership of plans. A deeper level of engagement can result when we involve people in our decisions, strategies and plans. Fostering shared ownership can create greater commitment to our objectives. When people have a say in our plans, they are more likely to work toward achieving them.
The most engaging questions are variations on "What do you think?" You might ask:
- What do you see as the main issue here?
- What do you think might be some options for dealing with it?
- What are the pros and cons of your preferred option?
- What obstacles to you see in the way of implementing your suggestion?
- How would you suggest we deal with those obstacles?
To fully engage people, it's also essential to avoid shooting the messenger. If you argue with every suggestion people make or ridicule their ideas, you will shut them up.
If you disagree with the ideas others offer you, start by thanking them for having the courage to speak up. State what you like about their suggestion and then ask more questions, such as: "I like A, B and C about your idea but what might be the risks of doing D and E?"
Tone of voice and body language are also important. You must appear to be supportive and encouraging, not skeptical if you want people to open up.
3. Influencing Tactics
A classic psychological experiment focused on negative attitudes toward the police. One group with such attitudes was asked to write essays on all the benefits police bring to society. When attitudes were surveyed a second time, this group changed their opinions the most. The moral of the story is that it is easier to influence people by getting them to state advantages in their own words than it is by trying to promote our own views.
Normally, being self-sufficient, we present arguments to people to convince them of the benefits of our proposals. We may vary our style by emphasizing different features for different audiences, by trying to be inspiring, by varying the medium or by repeating the message as often as we can.
The option is to ask questions such as:
• If you adopted this proposal in your department, what would be the benefits?
• How could you make this idea work for you?
• What would you advise on how we can get this change accepted?
• You have come up with some excellent objections, but can you think of some ways we can overcome them?
• In your experience, what would be the best way of gaining support for this idea?
Subtle flattery helps. Phrases like "what would you advise," "excellent objections" and "in your experience" asked in a respectful tone can make resistant people feel valued.
Often people resist change precisely because they were not consulted and thus feel devalued. Their resistance is a way of asserting their importance. Arguing with them in a dismissive manner makes matters worse by conveying the impression that you see their views as unimportant.
Influence by Focusing on the Other Person's Needs
We often try to influence people by stating our needs. For example, suppose your boss asks you to take on a project that you don't have the time to do. Instead of telling your boss all your reasons why you can't do this job, try asking questions like: "What is the priority on this job in comparison with everything else I'm doing?"
The idea is to involve your boss in deciding how best to allocate your time and energy while conveying the impression that your boss is your number one internal customer. Make it clear that, following the 80/20 rule, you need to focus on the 20% of priorities that will yield the highest return for your boss.
You can also ask questions about the flexibility of timing for each of your priorities, what other options there might be for getting some of your priorities done or what support might be available.
This is engaging because you're involving your boss in deciding how you should best use your time in order to meet his or her needs. The key is to focus on your boss's needs, not your own. This is just being customer-focused.
4. Showing Empathy
Managers are often criticized for failing to notice that someone is upset. This is not an easy skill to develop, but empathy questions are a reasonable substitute, such as:
• What are your feelings about this – plus and minus?
• What do you see as the pros and cons of this idea?
• What are 2 things you like and 2 you don't like about my action?
• How would you rate this idea on a scale of 1 to 10? Why?
Asking people how they feel on both sides of an issue, positive and negative, can prevent them from avoiding the issue. If you just ask how people are feeling, they might give you a bland answer: "OK."
If you don't notice when you annoy someone, you can't make empathy statements. But, if your questions reveal annoyance, then you can apologize and say things like: "I can understand how you feel?" Then ask other empathy questions, such as:
• What would you like me to do differently in future?
• How do you think we might have handled this better?
• How can we change this in a way that you would find acceptable?
• Is there anything that you or I can do to help you feel differently about this?
These questions are meant to be examples only. There are hundreds of variations on the theme. The point is to compensate for not noticing when people are upset by regularly asking questions that encourage people to open up about their feelings. Avoid closed questions, those that can be answered with "yes" or "no".
5. Motivating People
Questions can also be used to motivate people, such as:
• What would achieving this goal do for your career?
• How can you develop yourself to be ready for promotion?
• What steps can you take to be more effective in those situations?
• How else can you make full use of your talent and experience?
Again, these are merely sample questions. The key is to involve people in deciding what to do, to draw solutions out of them instead of trying to sell them your solutions.
6, Confronting People
Normally we confront people by making strong statements. This can backfire if the other person becomes even angrier. Suppose someone is behaving in a bullying manner. Before asking engaging questions, make some empathy statements like: "You seem pretty determined to achieve this; it must be important to you."
Then ask questions such as:
• How do you think the other person feels about your actions?
• How would you feel if you were on the receiving end?
• What do you see as the potential risks of your approach?
• How might your approach undermine your efforts?
• What other approach might work better?
• How could you get people on your side?
Naturally, the angry person will blame whatever is the cause of his or her anger. Try to deflect this by making an empathy statement and asking: What could you have done differently?
The point is to enlist the person's help in deciding the best way forward instead of using a telling or selling approach and putting the person down. Confrontational questions should be asked in a supportive, empathetic manner. Even though you're not shouting, you're still confronting the issue with pertinent questions; you're not avoiding it.
Engaging questions can shift our identity from that of answer-giver, solution-generator and individual contributor to that of facilitator, catalyst and coach. Arguably, we will achieve more by working more effectively with and through people in this way than by trying to promote our own ideas exclusively.
Further, it is easier to base our confidence on the ability to ask engaging questions than it is on knowing the answers, given that the world is too fast changing and complex for any one person to know very much anyway.
Unless you are a lone inventor, artist or writer, you need to work effectively with and through people to be successful. Asking engaging questions fosters more collaboration and commitment from others than the usual approach of trying to convince them of your opinions. Try it. You might be more successful.
For more examples of engaging questions, see More Engaging Questions.
See also: How Engaging Are You?, What's Your Leadership Model?, A Hero at Work, See also: Engage Yourself, Should You Always Play to Your Strengths?, The Post-heroic Manager, How's Your Confidence Today?