Questions are the key for innovation, progress, growth, exploration, and so many business issues and personal development too. For if there is no question, there is no drive to search for answers. For as long as I remember I’ve been a questioner. I’ve questioned myself a lot, learned about questioning techniques as a coach, interviewed many people for research purposes, been interviewed in podcasts, questioned my mentees, my students, my training participants, my friends, family, teachers, strangers, my cat, and the universe. Over the years, I’ve learned the deeper aspects of questions and helped many people go beyond the usual “I’ve learned a questioning technique during a leadership course and I should use it with my team to be more performant”. Here are the three things I will share with you today:
One – The Intention
A question starts with an intention, are you aware of yours? I suggest you simply ask yourself:
“Am I asking the question to serve my interest or that of the other?”
The former is about gaining understanding so you can analyse and respond. There is nothing wrong with that, just be aware that you are tainting the question with your goal in mind and hence maybe not giving much space for the other. You are using your frame of reference to guide the question, to get to the answer that YOU need. This is mostly how managers and consultants use questioning techniques. So that they can get to a result.
The latter is when you ask a question and do not need to know the answer, the answer and the process to get to it are for the benefit of the other. This is of course how coaches and mentors use questions to help the other in their reflection. With that intention, your questions are more likely to be unbiased, trigger insight, and be an opportunity for growth.
This might seem obvious now that I have mentioned it, but in most cases, I have found that people are not aware of their intention when they ask questions. Or they think they are asking good questions, because technically it was open for example, or they listened to the answer, but they did not see how it was directed towards their own goal, their own benefit, and did not leave much space for the other person. This leads to my second point:
Two – The Invitation
Good questions create a space-time for other people, they invite them to reveal themselves, their perspectives, feelings, and creativity. So the question is not just about putting a question mark at the end of a sentence. It is about creating that space, creating that moment in time, in which the other will feel free, safe, and valued to express themselves authentically. Of course, here trust plays a key role, and without going too deep on this subject, you could ask yourself:
“How do/did I create trust or a safe space in this conversation?”
Here are a few tips/checkpoints: If we are going to speak about sensitive subjects, how can I ensure and show confidentiality will be respected? If I would like to help them open up, maybe I should do it first. If I am an expressive extrovert, maybe I can make an effort to shut up and be still in silence to give the other time to reflect and express themselves in their own time. If they are not residing to my questions, maybe I don’t make them feel safe to answer, maybe my question was not inviting, and maybe I’m not the right person to ask it.
When a question is asked, it is an invitation, which can be refused.
Three – The Discovery
This last point connects directly back to the first one, why do you ask the question? Often we do have the intention to discover the other, not for self-interest but to create a new relationship but we are scared to enter into this unknown territory which is the other person’s mind.
So most people go explore the other but with an old map, the map of their own territory, and try to find treasures where they would have done in their own. This is why they ask closed questions.
“Am I asking open or closed questions?”
Closed questions tell the respondent what type of answer is expected: the “who” will call for a name, the “when” for a date or time, the “have you, are you, do you” for a yes or no, the “which variable, element, KPI” all call for a specific answer. Again closed questions are not wrong, they serve a purpose to confirm understanding or specify a point.
What we need to watch out for is our overuse of closed questions. We do that so we do not lose control of the conversation, we do not get lost in someone else’s mind so that we get to our result (see point 1).
How about we let go of control for a bit, get lost with the other, discover the richness of their mind, learn from their perspective, accept that we might not understand it all, appreciate the beauty of the unexpected. This is the mark of true explorers, going where we do not know what to expect. And this is where the treasures lie.
You were to apply these principles when asking yourself questions when you are doing some introspection so you can grow: check your intention (it is not about judging yourself or getting somewhere precise); create time/space for capturing the answer (ok this is where I can plug in my introspection notebook ;o) and get lost in the depth of your own mind, not accepting the superficial answers you usually give in society (that one takes courage and honesty).