By Gale Mote / Guest Editorial
I am often asked, “What are the most important skills managers need to be most effective in leading others?” Is it delivering clear expectations, showing appreciation or providing meaningful performance feedback?
While I would support all of the above, an often-overlooked skill is the ability to ask questions. Knowing the right question to ask at the right time has the potential to build trust, resolve conflicts, gain commitment for decisions, solve problems, create accountability and strengthen relationships. As Albert Einstein said, “If I had one hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.”
Before we get too far, though, it’s important to discuss what kinds of questions to skip. Tony Stoltzfus, author of “Coaching Questions,” recommends avoiding closed and solution-oriented questions. Examples of those include, “Do you have any other options?” or “Could you give her the benefit of the doubt on this one?”
Leading questions are a way to subtly transfer our own thoughts and opinions to someone else. Consider: “It seems like you have invested so much of yourself in this organization. Do you really want to quit now?” or “Would it not make more sense to go directly to the person with whom you have the conflict?” It’s interesting that most leading questions are also closed-ended. They tell the person you’re speaking with that you’re looking for agreement, not their opinion.
Conversations require dialogue, not monologue. Closed-ended questions solicit simple, short responses without the benefit of exploring a person’s feelings, insights and experience. Asking the right question helps the other person create and own their own solution.
Open-ended questions are most effective: what, how, when, who, why and in what way? Just remember to use the “why” question carefully. While unintentional, this question often puts the other person on the defense, because you are essentially asking them to justify their actions. Consider rephrasing questions like “Why did you approach her like that?” or “Why are we behind schedule?” in more supportive terms, such as “How were you feeling when you initiated the feedback?” or “What factors caused the team to miss the deadline?”
Managers often need to help their employees see and respect the bigger picture by looking at a situation from multiple perspectives. Reframing questions helps others to see the importance and interrelationship of processes, actions and people. For example, after asking a question like “What impact will this decision have in the next week, month or year?” you could follow up with, “I have heard you argue against this change from your own perspective. Now, tell me how this change benefits the organization from a different angle.”
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “when I go slow, I go faster.” Some of our best thinking and decision-making is done when we are not going 100 miles per hour. A gift that managers can give their employees is the ability to stop doing and become more adept at reflecting. This can happen through the act of posing well-timed and incisive questions.
Asking “What does your heart say?” or “What do you expect here?” can cause people to stop and address what is happening at a deeper level. Key questions for analyzing a difficult or challenging experience might sound like, “What happened? When did you first become aware that this was significant? What actions did you take you that helped the situation? Hurt the situation? How did this experience affect you? What changes did it push you to consider?”
Lastly, it is important for managers to help employees make tangible progress toward their goals. Call-to-action questions get people moving forward with confidence and a plan: “What could you do? Which of these options do you want to pursue? Make that into a concrete action – what exactly are you going to do by when? What is your next step? What do you need that you don’t have to reach your objective? What could you do to increase your chances of getting this done successfully?”
Of course, after managers ask the questions, they need to open their ears and close their mouth. Listen – really hear and understand what the employee is saying, not what you want to hear or what you believe to be the correct answer. Manage the conversation by paraphrasing back what was said, asking clarifying questions and, at times, redirecting the conversation to keep it focused and on track.
The business of business is relationships. As managers master the ability to ask the right questions at the right time, they will develop employees’ competence, confidence and commitment. What questions are you asking?
Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.