For a manager or team leader, telling people what to do is almost always easier than asking questions. Yet, being skillful at asking great questions can be of tremendous benefit to you and your company. Some of the common and surprising benefits include:
Inspiring others. Most of us have had bosses who asked really probing questions (at the time, it might have felt like a grilling). And if the questions were intelligently asked, our very best thinking was required. That person inspired us to think more clearly and more deeply than we had before or maybe even believed we could. When you ask questions that bring out people’s best thinking, they feel smarter and much more motivated and capable to take action. As a result of your questions, they inspire themselves.
Informing others. We usually think we inform others when we tell them something. But in many ways, the lasting impact is greater when we ask questions to inform them than when we tell them what we know or think we know. Great questions bring up aspects of an issue that may not have been previously thought through. Great questions lead rather than steer others to more clearly form their own thinking—to inform themselves.
Getting things done faster. It might seem that asking questions takes time and that it’s easier to tell someone what to do. But when a leader asks smart questions, listens, and asks more questions, the employee has to verbalize the issue, the solution, and the timelines and therefore owns it. It is not the boss’s idea. It is the employee’s, and she is much more motivated to be proven right and get it done.
Demonstrating how smart you are. It is personally rewarding, self-assuring, and natural to want to express what you know and think. As you ask more probing and powerful questions, you will find this statement to be true: The less we worry about appearing smart, the smarter we will appear to be just by listening and asking smart questions.
In my career, there have been many times when others thought I was smarter or knew more than I did just because I asked smart questions. And because they were able to show how smart they are, they figured I was smart to bring out the best in them. How many times has that happened to you?
Dealing with challenging people and difficult situations more easily. When you ask powerful questions in the right way at the right time, edginess and testiness will be diffused. Powerful questions almost always start with the word “what”—and rarely with “why” or “how.”
“What” is designed to encourage a person’s best thinking without the need to defend himself. Questions that start with “why” usually cause people to think: “I have to defend my thinking or actions,” rather than “I am being asked to verbalize my thinking.”
In difficult situations, it is best to ask direct questions that get to the heart of what needs to be done. Some examples are:
- What could you have done differently to create the outcome we wanted?
- What was an even better way for you to handle that?
- What do you need to do to greatly improve this situation?
- What will you commit to do differently when a similar situation arises?
- What do you think are or will be the consequences of what you did or of what happened?
The focus is on the person responsible and what he will do, or must do, more than what he has done.
Showing respect for others. As you think about the times someone has asked questions to learn what you think, you consciously or subconsciously had the sense of being respected. When the leader wants to know what another person thinks, your request for their best thinking has gravitas. Most everyone, whether or not they are comfortable admitting it, feels respected when another person—especially someone they respect—asks what they know or what they think.
It’s important to note here that when you ask gotcha questions or ones designed to show how wrong the other person is, your disrespect for that person will be clear.
Gaining greater respect from others. We get what we give. We may be given respect because of our title or what we have accomplished, but the respect that inspires followers the most is based on who we are as a person and a leader. When we genuinely show a person respect by asking what he knows or thinks, even in tough situations, he will have more respect for us.