Powerful questions will help you learn both about the person you’re speaking with and the subject you’re discussing. You can find out how the person thinks and what is important to them, based upon what they say and don’t say. The more you continue to ask powerful questions, the more you will accomplish both. This confirms George Bernard Shaw’s point: “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” So often we fall into a trap in which we believe we understand each other and grasp the concepts being explained, only to later find that it was almost as if we were speaking a different language to one another. Continual probing and on-target questions will help both you and the other person arrive at the best solution and learn more about each other and yourselves.
“The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” -George Bernard Shaw
It seems obvious since we spent two chapters discussing the importance of listening, but when a question is asked, allow the other person the time to respond. You want to be sure that thought processing and critical thinking are at play. I had one client who felt that the reason the respondent didn’t answer immediately was that he or she didn’t have an answer. If you want a quick answer, there is a really low probability that you will gain a truly thoughtful answer. If your expectation from a thought-provoking question is a quick answer, you risk the other person being frustrated in a nonproductive way, with you and with themselves.
Powerful questions also satiate your sense of curiosity. When you are curious, you want to learn more and you will more naturally ask questions in ways that will maximize the other person’s thinking. When the right question does not come to mind or the person was not clear in what he or she said or was trying to say, you can always respond: “Tell me more about that.” This simple phrase will expand the other person’s thinking as they further verbalize their thoughts and your understanding of what they are saying. When one is not naturally curious, the desire to respect the other person by exploring their thinking provides a solid motivation to ask questions that bring out the person’s best thinking. Instead of saying, “Stay thirsty, my friend,” as Jonathan Goldsmith did in the Dos Equis ads, say to yourself, “Stay curious, my friend.” Lack of curiosity can be the foe of getting to the best result.
“Lack of curiosity can be the foe of getting to the best result.” -Fred Halstead
Powerful questions are perfect for discussing sensitive matters. Asking difficult, tough, or edgy questions can be hard for even the most veteran leaders, but those who want their colleagues and team members to succeed will of course need to ask some from time to time. As a coach, I ask those questions fairly often to bring out my client’s very best thinking. When the person is asked a tough question that reflects on them personally, you will find it interesting, maybe surprising, and rewarding to first ask for their permission to ask a difficult question.
Tough or difficult questions are direct and go to the heart of personal accountability and, at the same time can inspire a higher level of performance. Examples of such questions include: “In retrospect, what could you have done differently to create the outcome we wanted?” or “What was an even better way for you to handle that?” These questions will help them reflect on their decisions and actions, and also on what they can do in the future to improve. A question such as, “What do you need to do to greatly improve this situation?” or “What specifically will you commit to do differently when this or a similar situation arises?” may feel too pointed at first, but it will lead to them being more reflective and thoughtful, help them avoid the same actions in the future, and to grow as a leader. These kinds of pointed questions also demonstrate that you care about them as a person and you care about their success—and they reflect clearly on who is responsible. They have no sense of “gotcha,” which tends to make it about you more than their responsibility.
“When you are curious, you want to learn more and you will more naturally ask questions in ways that will maximize the other person’s thinking.” -Fred Halstead