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The Power of Questions

Every day we ask questions without considering what’s taking place. When we extend a casual inquiry to a colleague, seek updates on a project, or ask about opportunities with our team, what are we trying to achieve? Harvard professors Leslie K. John and Alison Wood Brooks believe there are at least three things. In their article, “The Surprising Power of Questions” John and Wood Brooks suggested that we ask questions to exchange information, make an impression, or strengthen relationships.[1]


Questions are a powerful way of determining how to lead others. As leaders, we must be effective in exchanging information to understand the circumstances within which we’re leading. How we orchestrate the exchange of information makes an impression on those being led and develops our relationships with them. To do all of this well we must understand why questions are powerful, the types of questions we can use, and how to use them effectively.

Why are Questions so Powerful?

When we think about exchanging information, making an impression, or strengthening a relationship, asking questions isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind. Some leaders are convinced that information exchange is a one-way transference where their ideas replace whatever thoughts are in the minds of others. These leaders believe that the best impression is made when they are recognized for how wise they are. And, since they are so smart and so wise, relationship success is achieved as well. Who wouldn’t love them?


Rather than dispensing information, the best leaders ask the right types of questions posed at the right time. Asking questions says to the responder, “I care about what you’re thinking.” That allows for the free flow of information from the responder who develops a trust for the questioner, enabling the leader to gather important details. When those you lead know you care about them, you become more likable in their eyes. That impression is critical to how you will persuade them toward the best decisions. Dwight Eisenhower, 34th president and leader of the Allied Forces in WWII is quoted as saying, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”[2] Leadership success hinges on the beliefs of those being led. When they believe their leader cares about them and is interested in them, they will do what is wanted of them because they want to do it.


Types of Questions

Knowing about question types allows us to strategically apply the right kind of question to get the results we desire. In general, most questions fall into one of three categories.


  1. Closed Questions: These questions are fact-based and easily answered in a short response which requires little consideration by the responder. When asked, the questioner remains in control of the conversation. An example would be, “Did you attend the meeting?” Closed questions provide a great starting point for a deeper conversation, especially when followed by a series of open questions.

  2. Open Questions: Open questions seek to discover the feelings or opinions of the responder. They’re gateways to the conversation. Open questions transfer control of the conversation to the responder. Such questions allow for an understanding and deeper empathy for the responder’s feelings. Relationship bonds occur as a result. An example of an open question as a follow-up would be, “How do you feel the meeting went?”

  3. Leading or Loaded Questions: Leading or loaded questions are meant to persuade a response. Leading questions suggest an answer while loaded questions include assumed facts. Both are meant to elicit a biased response. An example of a leading question would be, “You will close the account today, right?” A loaded question would be, “Were you late for the meeting again?” Viewed in a positive light, say for coaching purposes, a leading question would be: “Will the outcome be positive or negative if you don’t follow through?” Similarly, a loaded question would be: “What are you doing that’s keeping you from reaching your goal?”

Using Questions Effectively

Questions are a powerful way to develop critical thinking skills in yourself and others. Simply put, critical thinking addresses the way we approach topics. It’s the skill we sharpen by examining things from all angles, assessing details in order to determine a course of action. A good method for developing critical thinking skills in your leadership involves strategically asking questions.


In general, ask closed questions to probe a person’s disposition. The words and inflection you use are also important. Consider the difference between, “How are you doing?”, which often elicits a grunt in response, to “How are you holding up?” Then play with the words through inflection. Compare the impact of “How are YOU holding up?” to “HOW are you holding up?” These closed questions allow you to probe while keeping you in control of the conversation, informing you of how to follow up in pursuit of the information you seek.

Follow up closed questions with open ones. By doing so you communicate that you care about the person’s feelings. Be careful not to ask too many open questions in a rapid-fire approach without engaging in the answers given. Questions posed back-to-back can feel like an interrogation and destroy any hopes of a relationship.[3]


By the effective use of closed and open questions to gain information and establish a relationship, you can begin to distinguish truth from fiction using leading and loaded questions. These types of questions provide a great way to help the responder be truthful and transparent as well as set up “ah-ha” moments.


Conclusion

Knowing how to pose the right questions at the right time can be a powerful leadership skill. By effectively using questions to gain information, make an impression, and develop a relationship, you can learn about those you lead while developing your critical thinking skills as well as theirs. You can also collaborate on a course of action with the confidence it will get done because the one you’re leading knows you are interested in them and care about them. That empowers them to do what they want to do - which is exactly what you wanted to be done.

[1] Found at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/dwight_d_eisenhower_101562 [2] Found at: https://hbr.org/2018/05/the-surprising-power-of-questions [3] Found at: https://hbr.org/ideacast/2018/05/ask-better-questions.html

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