Over the last several weeks, a recurrent theme has emerged as I have conversed with a wide variety of leaders and groups across the country. The theme involves the power of questions and their uses in a wide variety of settings and contexts. Here are some examples.
- A manager with a passive and disengaged team identified questions as a tool to help get the team involved in projects.
- A leader who tended to react negatively when challenged, resolved to use questions to slow down and respond thoughtfully in the midst of conflict.
- A team struggling to work well with another department asked thoughtful questions to improve understanding of the other department's concerns and to identify ways to collaborate.
Questions are much more than mere tools to gather information or clarify someone's concerns. They help move discussions forward and can be powerful tools to improve interpersonal dynamics. In their recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Allison Brooks and Leslie John highlight the ways that a good question can help:
"It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members. And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards."
In conversations, questions serve two main purposes (1) exchange of information (learning) and (2) impression management (liking). In a business environment, both learning and liking are key components of leadership, teamwork and negotiations. Clearly, questions are a powerful tool, but if overused, they feel like an interrogation. Here are some tips for using questions effectively.
- Use Follow-up Questions: When following up on a comment, questions can signal that you are listening, you care and want to learn more.
- Ask Open-Ended Questions: Not only do open-ended questions reduce the possibility that others might feel threatened by the question, but they tend to uncover useful information and unexpected answers no one else has thought of.
- Get the Sequence Right: When building relationships, start with questions that are unobtrusive then move into deeper topics.
When skillfully used, questions cannot only improve relationships, but strengthen results as well.