Why Do You Ask? The Importance of Intention When Asking Questions

Guest Post by Kevin Eikenberry

Questions can help us in many ways – but not always. Have you ever asked a question and had it fall flat, or even leave people hurt or angry? Did that outcome surprise you? Has a question ever left you wondering, Why are they asking me?” or “What is the point of this question?” After considering both sides of this situation, it is clear there is more to being an effective question-asker than simply having a great question. Beyond the words themselves, your intention when asking is critical to your success.

Effectively conveying your true intention when asking a question starts before you ask and goes beyond the question itself. Here are some steps to take to make sure the questions you ask serve you in positive ways.

Before You Ask

The single most important factor in asking effective questions is the intent behind the question. I cannot stress this enough. Before you ask the question, know your intention. Why are you asking? Recognizing and understanding the purpose for asking the question can help ensure the clarity of the exchange. It is also an opportunity for self-reflection and even self-check. If your intention is to shame, blame, or belittle, stop and don’t ask at all. Will having that negative intention serve you, the situation, and your relationship in any positive way?

It’s not likely – so don’t do it.

Focus on what is positive in your intent– to learn, to share, to engage. Make it clear in your mind first. When your intention in asking is clear to you, it is much more likely to be clear to the other person. But it is not guaranteed.

So, what can you do to increase the clarity in your questions? Once your (positive) intention is internally clear, consider:

  • Your audience. Whom are you asking – is it one person or a group? How do you expect they might take the question, based on their thoughts on the topic? Given that, is there a best way to ask the question?
  • The situation. Is there angst, anger, or stress in the situation? Do people see the topic as high-stakes? If so, making your intention clearer is critical and may take additional effort or finesse.
  • Your relationship with them. What is the level of comfort and trust people have in you? The higher these factors are, the less risk there is in having your intention misunderstood. But it can still happen.
  • Any positional differences. Because of your role, your questions may be unintentionally misinterpreted. As a leader, a teacher, or even a parent, this is an especially important copoint to consider.

As You Ask

Based on a clear internal intention and some thought about the situation, now you can ask your question. Do these three things:

  • Consider a preamble. If you are concerned about the possibility of misunderstanding your intention in asking, state it up front. Start the exchange with, “Before I ask, let me tell you my intention.” Or “I’m not sure how to ask – so let me explain why I am asking first.”
  • Read the room. Consider the emotional state of those you are about to ask. Adjust the phrasing or timing of your question accordingly.
  • Watch body language. After you ask, notice how people react. You might quickly find that your question didn’t land effectively. By watching for that, you can be ready for what comes next.

After You Ask 

Your opportunity for clarity doesn’t end with the question. You can still clarify your intention and get even better results after your question.

  • Remove the pressure. After you ask, take a breath and observe. Give people a chance to think about their response. Too much urgency from you could confuse them, leading them to question your intent in asking.
  • Clarify (or reclarify) your intention. Maybe you thought your intent was clear. Maybe you stated it already. And you still may need to state it again. After all, can you ever be “too clear?”
  • Restate your question. If it seems people are misunderstanding or misinterpreting, ask the question again. Perhaps add the encouragement and reassurance of a preamble the second time.
  • Reassure and thank people. Thank people for hanging in with you and not jumping to negative conclusions. Reassure them that your intent was positive. Finally, if appropriate, let them know what you will do with their input as a next step.

Sometimes our intention isn’t clear enough to us, and more often it can be misinterpreted by others. With this understanding, we can take positive actions to improve the value and benefit of our questions. A successful exchange through well-intended questions and responses builds trust and relationships.

Kevin Eikenberry

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Eikenberry has spent 30 years helping organizations and leaders from over 40 countries become more effective. Inc.com has twice named him in the top 100 Leadership and Management Experts in the World. His books include Remarkable Leadership, From Bud to Boss, The Long-Distance Leader, The Long-Distance Teammate, and The Long-Distance Team.  You can connect with Kevin @ KevinEikenberry.com 

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