Questions are such an important tool for accessing the best thinking – our own and from others. If you observe a room of people – or even just two – having a dialogue, it’s always the person asking the questions that has the power. Why? Questions naturally direct the attention of respondents to search for the answers. Follow these rules to use questions more skillfully.
Be clear about your purpose for the question. Know what you want before you ask. For example, is this a question to get information, to start an action, or to think about a new subject? Asking questions to elicit information and data is different from asking questions designed to get others to ponder, reflect, and think outside the box.
Observe the Golden Rule. Ask questions of the other person as you would like to be questioned. For instance, keep questions simple and be careful about how the question is delivered. To neutralize “defensive listening,” deliver questions in a neutral or accepting tone. Use welcoming facial expressions and body language (remember, even on the phone you can tell if a person is smiling!). Ask only one question at a time.
Use common sense. For instance, don’t ask a complicated, difficult, or emotional question when the other person is running late for a meeting or swamped with work. Instead, set up the question to let them know what may be coming. For example: “I have a question about that situation with XYZ Company that we talked about last week.”
Resist quick, automatic answers. In general, people are rewarded for answering quickly, not thoughtfully. To make room for creative and critical thinking, create a gap between the question and possible answers so new thinking can occur. A method of doing this is to use “wait time.” Research indicates that if a teacher waits for three to five seconds for students to answer a question, the thought process is richer, deeper, and more complex.
Encourage “first draft thinking.” Make the meeting a safe place to think up new ideas by letting employees know that this is just the first stage of development. They will be more willing to throw out fresh – but perhaps not fully fleshed-out – ideas that with further brainstorming can have true potential.
Using questions skillfully and strategically can be the best quality a leader can have. Happy question asking!