Excerpted from “Out of the Question – How Curious Leaders Win” with permission of the authors
We all know that communication is made up of the words we use, our tonality, and our body language. A big part of asking artful questions is to consider what is beyond the words.
If there’s a breakdown in communication when we’re asking questions, we need to explore not only the words that are spoken, but the way in which they are spoken (tonality) and our posture (body language) when we’re speaking. We may fail to influence people with our words because our nonverbal cues indicate closed thinking, particularly if we have a knower mindset. The words may have been spoken, but they don’t feel inviting and open. When that happens, the people being interrogated may get scared and intimidated and begin to close down. That condition has a real impact in today’s world because, as we said, we need everyone in the conversation. When we shift to the learner mindset and have the right language and nonverbal cues to accompany the exploration, the magic happens.
There’s a sequence for asking open, inquisitive questions. First, you have to understand the context. Second, you have to make sure your tone and other nonverbal signals support what you’re trying to do. Finally, you ask the right question.
People often think about these things in the reverse order. They open with a question with little or no context, and their tone and body language don’t encourage participants to explore or jointly resolve a situation.
The art of asking the great question is a combination of thinking and performing. It’s about understanding your purpose, context, and audience (which is why you first spend time reflecting), and then forming a question and asking it with the right tone and posture. If you pound your fist on the table while asking a question, you are going to get a very different result than if you ask the same question while turning up both your palms. The content of the question is the main thing, but, if it’s not delivered in the right way, it won’t work. Learner leadership allows you to be conscious of both what and how you communicate.
As the saying goes, “It isn’t what you say, but how you say it.” This difference can make or break a conversation. The tone you want to strike is one that makes your audience feel you’re coming at the conversation from the same side of the desk. It’s a we orientation versus a me and a you. It’s solution-based system versus a problem-based process. It’s inviting and nonthreatening. People, particularly millennials, are listening for the invitation to be a part of the conversation. When you’re stressed, the right words might come out, but the invitation should be, for example, “What do you think we can do to get from here to there?” You should avoid, “What are YOU going to do to get this done?”
Years ago, Allan worked for TMI North America, an international consulting firm focusing on creating compelling service cultures. One of the examples in their service program described how a shift of inflection or an emphasis on one word in a sentence can totally change the context. Often, the quality of the inflection in our tone of voice has a significant impact on the listener.
“I didn’t tell Elizabeth you were lazy.” (Bob did.)
“I didn’t tell Elizabeth you were lazy.” (It is not true that I told Elizabeth.)
“I didn’t tell Elizabeth you were lazy.” (I e-mailed her.)
“I didn’t tell Elizabeth you were lazy.” (I told John, Tom, and Carol.)
“I didn’t tell Elizabeth you were lazy.” (I said Tom was.)
“I didn’t tell Elizabeth you were lazy.” (You still are.)
“I didn’t tell Elizabeth you were lazy.” (You are casual about your work, but not lazy.)
What your body is saying may or may not be in line with your words. Staying calm and keeping eye contact will help you invite people into the conversation. Otherwise, people sense a disconnection. This is elementary to the human condition. When someone looks at you the wrong way, you think, “Gosh, what did I do?”
Obviously, fists on tables indicate declarations even if there are questions being asked. But turned-up and outstretched palms—either one or both—invite people into the discussion. An arm waved in a soft, open arc indicates, “I’m with you and we’re exploring.” Arms that are held in, or even worse, folded, indicate the speaker is closed. Some people are born frowners; others are natural smilers. We all need to take responsibly for how we posture when we’re in this kind of situation.
The context is about what’s happening right here and now; it’s also about putting yourself in other people’s shoes and understanding how they’re affected by what’s happening. You can ask a question, and it will mean one thing in an environment where things are going well and something else entirely if things have gone poorly. This difference has to do with your audience’s frame of mind. Are your listeners in a positive mode or a worried mode? Obviously, asking “How are things going?” to a group of people who just experienced a 20 percent layoff is quite different from presenting the same question to a group who just exceeded its sales goals for the quarter.
This arena is where empathy, trust, and intent becomes important. If a leader can be empathetic, that will come across positively. On the other hand, if the person you’re talking to doesn’t trust you, it’s very hard to get the conversation going in the right direction. Many professional coaches suggest starting off a conversation by assuming positive intent. If you come in with positive intentions, the conversation will move ahead very differently and much more rapidly than if you assume negative intent.
- Is there something about you or your position that might color your interaction?
- What’s your past history with these people?
- What’s happened today? What circumstances might be affecting people?
- Do you naturally assume positive or negative intent when you approach a situation?
Do’s and Don’ts
- Ask open-ended questions that start with “What …” and “How …” rather than yes or no questions.
- Notice your mindset (is it open or closed?) before you speak. Do you already have your own answer to the question you’re asking or are you open to discussion?
- Ask questions that give people permission to break out of the box or old models and encourage thinking about new possibilities.
- Pause before engaging and take enough time to learn the facts and issues before you discuss.
- Try to get a good mix of people with relevant backgrounds and opinions involved in brainstorming.
- Ask a question that assigns blame or guilt.
- Let a team brainstorm on a topic about which you, as the leader, have already made up your mind.
- Come to a meeting without a desired outcome in mind that you have communicated to the team or individual involved in the meeting.
- Rush into a conversation without having paused to reflect on what you need to know before engaging.
- Engage in possibility thinking and/or brainstorming on a topic when it is clear to you that you cannot fix the issue.
Guy Parsons is a well-regarded speaker, teacher and guide to the continuous improvement community who has worked for the past 20 years with over 120 companies across a wide range of industries from healthcare to financial services to private equity.
With his strategic “Bold Moves®” system designed for catapulting high-energy individuals into lives of great contribution, Allan Milham brings high-energy and passion and has been coaching leaders to greater performance as a certified professional coach since 1998.