How to Recapture the Art of Asking Questions

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Guest Post by Tanveer Naseer

Have you ever noticed how much kids ask questions? No matter where they are, no matter who they’re with, they always seem to find something that they have a question about. This behaviour has been known to be a source of exasperation for parents, if not also the inspiration behind many jokes about parenting and childhood. And yet, when you think about it, it’s understandable why children need to ask so many questions as it’s the way they learn about the world they live in.

Sadly, as we grow up, we start to lose this inquisitiveness and desire to question and understand. As we go through the school system, we begin to refrain from asking questions out of fear that we’ll appear foolish in front of our classmates for not already knowing the answer to what we’re asking. And then, as we move from the education system out into the workforce, we hold back from asking questions thinking that we are somehow expected to already know the answers, this being especially true the higher up the ladder one goes in knowledge-based industries.

As adults, we’ve mistakenly learned to stop asking questions, even though it’s the critical key to opening doors to knowledge, if not wisdom. Through the act of asking questions, we make ourselves look for answers, go down unfamiliar paths that allow us to expose ourselves to new ideas or information. By not accepting that something just is, we force ourselves to understand how come it is and with it, develop a better appreciation for it. Through our inquisitiveness, we nurture our powers of observation, of taking notice of how things are done and pondering the rationale behind it.

So how can we create an environment where our employees feel free to ask questions? Here’s some steps of what you can do -

1. Lead by example

As with any behaviour businesses want to have adopted within their workforce, encouraging others to question has to start at the top before it can work its way into the rest of the organization. It’s a common perception in most companies for leaders to be seen as having all the answers, a notion that can be perpetuated by both the organization’s leadership as well as its employees. By reaching out to your team members in asking them what they think, of whether they see any issues arising from the company’s current direction, it will demonstrate to your employees that your company doesn’t want its workforce to simply maintain the status quo; rather, it’s open to new ideas/solutions that can help improve the business.

Of course, for entrepreneurs and small business owners, this can present a bit of a challenge to have others question how the business they started currently operates. But in these cases, it’s important to recall that the reason you brought in these team members is to help you address some of the challenges your growing company will have in the near future. Asking them for their perspective will help you discover issues that you might not have otherwise been aware of.

2. Focus on initiative and not just on the question

If we remember that one of the reasons why we stopped asking questions as we grew up was because we were afraid of looking silly, it becomes clear that when encouraging employees to ask questions, leaders should focus on the employee’s initiative and not just on the value of their query.

It’s important that leaders understand that many employees might choose to ask ‘safe’ questions – those that don’t challenge or question too much the status quo. By acknowledging and appreciating the interest shown by your employees to question matters, leaders will help provide an atmosphere where employees will feel compelled to bring up other questions that highlight some of the ideas or concerns they might have about the business.

3. Make sure you listen to what’s being asked

This might seem like an obvious step, and yet consider how many interviews or conversations you’ve seen where the person responding to the question failed to answer it. More often than not, it’s not because they didn’t know the answer. Instead, it was a result of their attention being more on what they expected to be asked rather than on what the actual question was. Remember the point in getting your employees to start asking questions is to discover information or insights you hadn’t realized and not simply to reinforce your own perspective.

4. Time and practice are the key

While many of us might have lost the habit of asking questions, this doesn’t mean we’ve lost the ability. As with restoring any desired habit, it’s going to take time and practice to take hold. Also, adding the act of asking questions into your company’s culture will take time as your employees will need to see that this is not merely the latest pet project of management, but a concrete effort to encourage greater participation and involvement of everyone toward how the company operates.

As children, we understood the power of asking questions to help us gain knowledge about our world. Similarly, businesses can use this sense of inquisitiveness to gain unique insights and understandings, information which can help lead to new possibilities for growth and innovation.

So what have you found works for motivating your team to ask more questions? What other measures would you suggest companies implement to make their employees feel more comfortable with asking questions?

TanveerNaseerTanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with managers and executives to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development.

His first book, “Leadership Vertigo” is slated for release in September 2014. You can read more of his writings on leadership and workplace interactions on his blog at TanveerNaseer.com  You can also follow him on Twitter - @TanveerNaseer

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