“Are there any questions?”
Silence. Awkward fidgeting. Heads down to avoid eye contact.
If you’ve ever attended a meeting in any sizeable organization — from large town-hall type gatherings to small team talks or even one-on-one performance reviews, you are familiar with this scenario.
“Are there any questions?” repeats the presenter, quite often the boss, expert or team leader hoping that somehow she has managed to stir your interest and engage your mind enough for you to want to step into conversation with her.
Note that by now there is little more than an upwards inflection following these two words to make them a question and since the presenter is already starting to tidy up her papers and close her computer, the audience can stop holding their breath and can relax at the prospect of escaping the room without pressure to put their hand up.
End of meeting.
And yet, the presenter (let’s assume she was one of my executive coaching clients) comes to me afterwards with a common refrain: “No-one asked me any questions. They just sat there and no-one spoke. I don’t know if that means they were interested, if they understood what I presented or if they were just bored. How do I get them to speak up and participate?”
At this point, I’ll ask my client, the presenter, to imagine she was in the audience. “What,” I ask, do you experience when someone asks you “Are there any questions?”
She pauses and starts to think…
“I guess a couple of things come to mind,” she ponders, “such as:
Is it likely that exactly the same thoughts are in your audience’s mind when you ask if they have any questions? Since you’ve asked it as a closed question, they might simply answer “yes” or “no, I don’t have any questions.” Where do you go from there? You can’t force them to have a question, can you? We are so habituated to the talk-style of meeting that asking for questions at the end of it has become little more than an unproductive habit. How might you break that habit and create a different dynamic in your meeting?
Please pause here for a moment to really ponder my question:
As you pause here, pay attention to how you’ve slowed down and created some space for yourself to think before answering. What do you hear? How does it feel to listen to your own inner voice of response?
Are you asking yourself a question? Maybe something along the following lines:
What you get back, or don’t get, from people is directly related to the exact question you ask, or don’t ask. Ninety-nine percent of the time, our conversations are incomplete (sometimes they don’t even start) because we don’t slow down enough to craft an intentional and appropriately worded question: a question that stops people in their tracks, that invites them to pause and really think about how they might answer it. A question that creates enough space for something new to happen. For an idea to occur. For their thoughts to process and create an inquiry. For them to come to a place of curiosity or intrigue and actually want to explore more.
In that place, just after you ask a great question, you find silence. Silence that invites you to wait for what wants to be heard. Crafting your question to create that silent space and listening fully into it is both powerful and efficient in engaging a response from your audience, your team or, yes, that individual in their one-on-one review conversation with you.
So next time you’re in a meeting or at the end of your presentation, how will you ask your question differently?
Here are some options to experiment with:
Let your brain roll with this, and you’ll come up with many more dynamic questions. As you ask them, you’ll find that people start speaking up and looking forward to your meetings and engaging with your presentations.
I’d love to hear what questions you discover. Email me or share them here on the leading with questions blog. We just can’t get enough of the questions that shift behaviors that shift results.
Aileen Gibb is a master coach and conversationalist, who works with mission-driven leaders and their teams around the globe, inspiring conversation cultures in organizations large and small. Her book, Asking Great Questions: an Essential Companion for Every Leader, contains over 1500 questions and provocative statements to kick-start difference-making conversations with individuals, with teams and as a powerful self-reflection tool for leaders. Once a year she invites a diverse group of leaders into a week-long intensive to practice the arts of listening, questioning and conversation as a leadership edge. Send her an email to join her next sabbatical-like, life enhancing week @ firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with her on her website: AileenGibb.com
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