One of my favourite 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.
Later, I was told it was a very bold question. I also got the job – because of or in spite of what the encounter said about me.
Questions can stop a thought process or redirect a discussion. We’ve all been in meetings where someone goes on and on about what they think. It’s 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 will become more meaningful.
A good question has a number of characteristics. It’s well-considered. It comes from a place of genuine curiosity. It’s on-topic. It’s 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.
There are a few key situations where asking good questions is more effective than giving advice:
- When someone is on the verge of making a breakthrough. When someone you’re coaching is close to finding a solution or forming a new insight, it’s 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. 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. When my friend Perry wanted to talk, again, 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 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?” 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’s 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 an A in math if she worked a little harder is unlikely to be met with a positive response. Asking “How important is it to get an A in math this year?” is more likely to help her reflect on and tap into her motivation.
Knowing when and how to ask a good question is invaluable. 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.
Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.
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