The Answers are in the Questions

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The Answers are in the Questions

Guest Post by Lyn Boyer

Leaders often find themselves in situations in which they coach others or they must get to the heart of very difficult situations so they can make better decisions. Their ability to ask questions and sometimes to help others clarity their own meaning are frequently key to their ability to function effectively. However, leaders often have not developed the skills required to ask productive questions.

Two recent conversations reminded me of the value and importance of questions.

A parent complained about one-word responses from his 14-year-old son. “How was school today?” …“Fine.”; “Do you have any homework?”… “No.”; “Where are you going?”… “Out.”

A coaching client explored how she could avoid some of the misunderstandings that occurred when she and a business partner discussed how to move their business forward. Each of them heard the same conversations, but each came away with different assumptions about what their conversations meant.

In these and many other situations, the questions one asks determine the responses. Three strategies help listeners and speakers understand situations more clearly. These strategies are clarifying, restating and summarizing.

  • Clarifying questions ask for more information. (Who is involved? What is the purpose? Why is this situation a concern? Can you tell me more about…? Why do you think this situation occurred? How did you react to her comments? How did others react?)
  • Restating is also called reflective listening. These questions repeat or reflect what the speaker said. A listener pauses after restating his understanding of previous comments to provide the original speaker an opportunity to reflect and clarify his meaning. (i.e. It sounds as if you were following company policy… The team seemed frustrated and angry… You were very confused about the situation… Your group proposed these options…)
  • Summarizing involves stating ones understanding of an event or situation once a speaker explains it. Summarizing allows the speaker to hear the listener’s perception and determine if the two perceptions agree. (i.e. After you met with the client you…. Then… ; You are concerned that he seemed… because… ; You have suggested the following options. Which seem most workable?)

After gaining a clear understanding of a situation, leaders often need to delve deeper and to explore different options or assumptions. This requires asking powerful or probing questions.

In normal conversation, many questions call for only “yes”, “no” or short factual answers requiring little thought. Short-answer questions include: Have you discussed this with your colleagues? Who is helping you with this? What approach do you plan to use?

Probing questions go beyond short answers; they require additional thought and consideration. They begin more often with how and why rather than who, what, where, and when. They are open-ended.

Probing questions challenge an individual’s or group’s thinking. They invite reflection and divergent thought. They can prompt a person or group to consider different options or points of view. They can also change the course of action.

Examples of probing or powerful questions are:

  • What assumptions are you making about his motivation? What if the opposite is true? What other assumptions can you consider?
  • What possibilities arise from this dilemma?
  • What options do you see? What other options are possible?
  • What do you fear? Why is this situation a concern for you?
  • How have you dealt with similar situations? Do you see a pattern?
  • How does this course of action serve you? What are possible negative ramifications?
  • What are possible roadblocks to your chosen course of action? How can you minimize them? How can you turn the roadblocks into stepping-stones?

As with clarifying, restating, and summarizing, asking powerful questions requires extensive practice and skill. As I observe the frustration my workshop participants express as they practice asking powerful questions, I understand that learning to ask questions that probe, explore and analyze a situation takes more than simple discussion about questioning techniques. Learning to ask powerful questions requires tremendous commitment and practice. It also demands genuine curiosity and concern.

However, asking powerful questions is an important skill that leaders (and parents) can develop. With practice, leaders can obtain tremendous results with individuals in their groups and organizations. As a parent and former high school principal, I recognize that with teenagers it may take a little longer.

What are the challenges you see to asking good questions? How do you overcome them? What other strategies do you use?

Dr. Lyn Boyer is a leadership coach, author and facilitator focusing on the emotional side of leadership—Affective Leadership℠. Her background as high school principal, coordinator of leadership development, and college professor provides a unique perspective.  Her website is:  www.lynboyer.net

Her book, Connect: Affective Leadership℠ for Effective Results, is available in Paperback and eBook in bookstores and online.

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Pam Smith   |   02 August 2012   |   Reply

My favorite question to ask my son at dinner: “What was the funniest thing that happened at school today?” He would think for a minute and say something like: “Well, it wasn’t funny but we had a pop quiz today” or “Oh, man this is really funny….Joe dropped his lunch tray.” Worked every time.

leadingwithquestions   |   02 August 2012   |   Reply

Love it Pam! What are some of your other favorite questions? Maybe with a friend?