Note from Bob: Chris Clarke-Epstein believes if you ask great questions you will get great answers. For 20 years, she has asked today’s leaders thought-provoking questions – pushing them to find new ways to do old things. You will want to get your hands on “78 Important Questions.”
THE GOAL OF asking questions is to get answers. Leaders ask questions to gather information, understand motivations, and uncover problems. Questions asked and answered in the workplace can uncover emotions, discover new approaches, and increase efficiency. All these desirable outcomes assume one thing-someone actually got answers to the questions they asked. You see, asking a question doesn’t guarantee an answer. Life doesn’t unfold like a TV courtroom drama. You remember the scene. The lawyer asks the guilty party a tough question. There’s a pause-a long pause. The lawyer looks at the judge; the judge bangs the gavel and sternly says to the witness, “You are instructed to answer the question.” The witness, properly admonished, takes a deep breath and confesses all. That’s the fictionalized version of how questions work.
In the real world, there is no judge to compel an answer. Getting good answers to questions is left to the skill of the questioner. There are five behaviors you need to master to increase the quality and quantity of the answers you receive.
1. Ask one question at a time.
Inexperienced questioners often fall into the trap of asking a flurry of questions all at once. Usually this happens because the questioner hasn’t thought through the question they want to ask. Listen in. “Sarah, I was wondering what issues customers have been raising lately? I mean, why is a call is escalated to you? Is that new policy we instituted last week really having a negative ative effect?” Poor Sarah. Which question is she supposed to answer? Bombardment happens because the questioner opened their mouth before they engaged their brain. A moment’s reflection would have helped Sarah’s leader realize that what they really wanted to know was the effect of the new policy. “Sarah, what customer reactions have you seen regarding the new policy we instituted last week?” This is a straightforward, unbiased question that Sarah could feel comfortable answering.
2. Pause at the end of a question.
Make it long enough for the answerer to think, formulate, and deliver their answer. Silence is often overlooked as a leadership tool; when it comes to asking questions, developing the skill of keeping your mouth shut is essential. Successful sales people have known the value of silence for years: ‘the first person who speaks after- the question is asked-loses. In the context of leaders asking questions, losing means the leader doesn’t get an answer, doesn’t get a good answer, or doesn’t get the real answer. Staving silent after asking a question involves more than just not talking. It means keeping eye contact, staving still, and feeling comfortable while you wait.
(Okay, he honest. You’re currently impatient, scanning the rest of the page, looking for the number that will indicate exactly how long you have to wait, right? Silence, even implied on the printed page, can make a leader nervous.) This very desirable behavior takes practice. Most people believe that they pause a sufficient length of time after they ask a question, but observation belies that. Pauses of two to three seconds are long if you’ve asked the question and fleeting if you’re preparing an answer. Monitor both your own pauses after a question and your comfort with silence in any situation. Work your way up to at least a ten-second pause after a question and watch the quality of the answers you receive improve greatly.
3. Learn about listening.
Not long ago, a participant walked into a session I was teaching on listening skills and asked if I would write his wife a note certifying he had passed the class. It seemed she had reviewed the conference brochure, noticed this class, and strongly suggested he attend. I replied that I would he happy to write her a note indicating he had attended the class, but proving that he had learned something was up to him. Most of us haven’t ever been taught to listen, been given feedback on our listening skills, or even spent any time thinking about how important good listening is. This would be a good time to do all three. I’m certain your human resources department can help you find a class; your spouse or significant other will give you feedback; back; and now that it has been brought up, you can figure out the consequences of bad listening on your own.
4. Ask follow-up questions.
They distinguish a good interviewer viewer from an average interviewer. We’ve all experienced the frustration of watching an interviewer ask a question, get an answer from the interviewee that begs for clarification, and then, rather than asking a follow-up question, simply move to the next question on their list. If you’re like me, at that point you tune out the rest of the interview. I believe that this behavior (not asking follow-up questions) sends a message to anyone who’s listening, not to mention the person you’re questioning, that you’re just going through the motions. The questioner is obviously more interested in asking their questions than in getting the interviewee’s answers.
When this behavior is exhibited by leaders, their employee’s mental dialogue goes something like this: “Here we go again, probably went to another seminar on being a better leader, and this week we’ll be subjected to a lot of silly questions. Probably has a quota of questions for the day. Doesn’t care about the answers at all.” The one drawback of asking follow-up questions is that too many of them in a row starts to sound and feel like an interrogation. rogation. You can encourage clarification of points made in an answer by using verbal encouragers (formally called directed lead statements for those of you who want the technical term). You probably use them already during interesting conversations. “I didn’t know that, tell me more.” “What else happened?” “Did it happen again?” Although these are, in fact, questions, they are delivered without the upward inflection that is the verbal equivalent of a question mark. They are delivered with a flat end as a statement and will encourage further dialogue.
5. Say thank you.
Your mother was right. Writing that thank-you you note was important to the giver of the gift. No matter how often they said that thanks wasn’t necessary, it was. Saying thank you to someone who’s spent time helping you by answering your questions will increase the likelihood that you’ll get more and deeper answers the next time you ask. And the way news travels in organizations, this thank-you you behavior will enhance your reputation as a leader.
Consistently practicing these five behaviors will turn you into an effective questioner-one who gets answers. In the next chapter, you’re going to be asking yourself some questions. You’ll be able to practice these skills on yourself-focus on a single question, stop and think, listen to both the things you say and the things you feel after each question. Ask yourself follow-up questions to dig deeper, and give yourself a pat on the hack for answering.
Chris Clarke-Epstein, Certified Speaking Professional is a change expert who has spent the last 28 years challenging diverse groups including senior leadership teams, middle management supervisors, and health care professionals to apply new knowledge. Author of and contributor to more than 15 books, Chris teaches and writes in critical areas such as understanding the dynamics of change, delivering effective feedback, dealing with conflict, and building high performance teams. You can connect with Chris @ Change101.com
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