Questions help us think and learn about the unknown, they focus our attention, and allow for continued exploration. They foster understanding on both sides.
Asking better questions helps to bring clarity to situations by exploring what we know, and what we need to know. They create trust and can develop empathy.
Linguistic communication is a uniquely human ability, and allows us to share complex information about the past, present, future, or goals, feelings and really, everything. Talking and listening, real listening, in the right mix, builds commitment between leaders and their followers.
Yet still, we don't always communicate as effectively as we could, and we all know that misunderstandings can cause real problems when managing and leading our people, and in developing teams.
One of the best ways to clear up misunderstandings and, in a co-operative situation like a business, one that can keep everyone on track, is to ask the right questions. There are the usual questions, such as “Is the project on track?” or “Are there any problems?” often require only a yes or no answer. Combine that with the fact that people hear these questions all the time and may feel defensive about them, and these questions don't take you very far. You don’t want to have the impression of an interrogation going on. Otherwise, people tend to shut down a useful discussion before it gets started. Try using open ended instead of yes/no, close-ended questions.
Give your team mates or colleagues, or direct reports a chance to share more information by asking questions like, “How do you feel about the progress of the project?” or even, “Where do you see room for improvement?” or “What do you think is going on here?"
In a courtroom, legal people want to ask questions that will get witnesses to share important facts. Thinking about whether your question is closed or open-ended before you ask it can immediately make your discussions more productive.
The right question will elicit a response with the information you need. The right kind of questions encourage the right information, but you want to avoid questions that make a person feel threatened, which will close them off to answering fully. Make your questions clear, so your colleague will know what sort of answer you're looking for. Vague questions like, “Are you on target?” can prevent you from getting a clear answer.
Two versions of the same question may elicit very different responses. Consider these:
"Well Jane, do you want to go ahead and schedule the printing job?" OR…
"Jane, what’s our level of preparation for the printing job?"
The first is a close-ended question requiring a yes/no answer, just as we considered above. Someone hearing this question would be inclined to say “yes” because it's expected, and feel they would give a bad impression if they said “no.” The second has no implication of a right or wrong answer, encourages a detailed answer, yet gets across the message that the printing job needs to be taken care of.
EXAMPLES OF OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS:
"How comfortable are you with the alternative plan?"
"What are your greatest concerns?"
"How did you feel about the productivity of that meeting?"
"What do you think about that proposal?"
"How could we change things to achieve greater productivity?"
Asking open ended questions not only allows your employee or colleague to share relevant information, it keeps the conversation open so you can share your ideas, and even persuade him or her to do things your way. It can be tempting to push an important project forward to with yes/no questions, but the work is bound to go more smoothly, and people are less likely to make mistakes, when you use open-ended questions and clear communication.
Ask questions creatively.
Questions are a powerfully linguistic way to elicit important information from our colleagues.
They also empower us to guide our interaction with others, which means influencing others and steering the conversation. Avoid questions that lay blame. Don't tell your employee,"Why can’t you just do your job and stop complaining?" Ask “how” questions about the future, which encourage creative problem solving. Avoid “why” questions about the past, which tend to undermine one's confidence.
Over all, be creative with your questions. Simply put, some are better than others for avoiding negativity and developing solutions.
With each new workplace challenge, we must ask questions to do our jobs well. Questions are meant to help us gather the information we need to succeed, so doesn't it make sense to ask quality questions, to get quality answers?
"Why are you always late?" "How could I have been so stupid?"OR…
"How could we solve this problem?" "What can I learn from this?"
Asking questions that accuse and put people on the defensive, rather than in a mood of cooperation. Asking conscious, productive questions is an important skill for many professionals, including psychotherapists, engineers, architects, engineers, doctors, scientists, and others. These groups excel at asking penetrating questions to solve unique problems as they arise. Anyone can learn to ask creative, probing questions in the workplace. Questions help us think and learn about the unknown, focus our attention, and allow for continued exploration. They are like the mountain climber’s hook-on-the-end-of-a-rope: we throw the hook into the unknown, and we pull ourselves into the future. But we need to learn how and where to throw, so that we pull ourselves into a better future.
Peter O’Connor is the MD of Performance Partners Ltd, a Management, Leadership, Sales and Personal Development Facilitator & Trainer, based in Ireland, who works internationally.
Peter can be contacted peter(at)performancepartners.ie or on 353-1-2402255.
Find out more about the Employee Passion Survey here
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