This article was first published February 14, 2020 at Troy Media
Questions are one of the most powerful tools we have in our arsenal as leaders, professionals, parents, human beings. One of my favourite personal stories about the power of a question comes from an interview. My final interview for a job I really wanted was with the CEO of the company. After peppering me with questions, he asked if I had any for him. I asked him why he was the CEO. Twenty years later, I can still remember the ‘whiplash’ that unexpected question elicited. Afterward I got feedback that it was a very bold question. I also got the job - either because of, or in spite of - what that encounter said about me.
Questions, unlike opinions or advice, have a unique ability to stop a thought process or redirect a discussion. We have all been in meetings where someone is going on and on about what they think. It is easy to sit back and tune out. But a question immediately demands our attention. The better the question, the more likely we are to perk up, and the more likely the conversation will deepen and our exchange become more meaningful.
What is a good question?
A ‘good question’ has a number of characteristics. It is well-considered. It comes from a place of genuine curiosity. It is ‘on-topic’. It is positioned in a way that allows the discussion to move forward. It requires people to pause and think before answering. It challenges assumptions. It opens up new pathways of thinking.
Coaching is a very popular development strategy for a reason. It is, at its core, all about asking the good question. A really good question is fuel for our reflection, awareness and insight. Most of us like to solve our own problems, and good questions invite us to do that.
When should you use a question?
There are a few key situations where asking a good question or two is more effective than giving advice.
When someone is on the verge of making a breakthrough. When someone you are coaching is close to finding a solution or forming a new insight, it is very tempting to step in and point out the obvious. One of the reasons leaders admit they do more ‘telling’ than ‘coaching’ is because allowing others to work through problems can be painfully slow at times. One of the best ways to help someone make that final leap of insight is by asking a really good question.
When someone is stuck in a rut. Do you know someone who is constantly complaining about the same old thing? When I see that person heading toward me, I can be guilty of looking for an escape hatch. When my friend Perry wanted to talk, for the hundredth time, about how under-appreciated he felt at his company, I decided to change tactics. Perry was stuck in a rut - unhappy but not doing anything about it. Instead of spending 30 minutes listening, nodding and showing empathy, I asked a question instead: “What do you need to do in order to leave this job and move to a place where you will be appreciated?” My question took Perry off-guard because it wasn’t my usual ‘if you hate it so much why don’t you leave?’ question. It was a ‘how’ question, and ‘how’ questions engage our problem solving brains. Instead of complaining, Perry spent the next 30 minutes talking about strategies for leaving, as well as sharing his fears and feelings of inadequacy. Asking a really good question can be the impetus for helping someone get ‘unstuck’.
When someone is coasting. When you see someone who is not living up to their potential, a question is far more effective in inspiring action than a judgment. For example, telling your daughter she could have had an A in math if she had worked a little harder is unlikely to be met with a positive response. Asking her ‘how important is it to you to get an A in math this year?’ is more likely to help her reflect on and tap into her own motivation.
Knowing when and how to ask a good question is an invaluable skill. It will make you a better leader, a better coach, a better parent, a better friend. And asking really good questions is also the best way I know to come across as really smart without having to know all the answers.