Elisabet Hearn and I wrote this article for 2020visionleader.com
Three key characteristics that great leaders have are that they:
- Are interested in other people
- Are good at listening
- Know that they don’t know everything!
Great leaders ask really smart questions – they don’t give the answers.
And as such, they realise that the art of asking questions is crucial when it comes to creating engaged team members and effectively managing the expectation of key stakeholders.
Think about it – when someone asks you a question – and are being genuinely interested and listening – how great does that feel! It makes you feel seen and important, it makes you want to get involved. It also makes you learn, and it gets you to think of the answer and therefore you learn from it.
In addition, when people have had input, they are more likely to make the change happen and create lasting change – as it was their idea.
No, a leader definitely doesn’t need to have all the answers, they just need to have really smart questions. Or just questions. All questions can lead to interesting discoveries.
Be aware though that sometimes it may be tempting to just give the answer (assuming you have it), as it’s easier and quicker. It may be more challenging to think of a smart question that allows the other person to think about the answer. It may take a little more time, but it’s also more skilful and it achieves more impactful results. Remind yourself how a question can get the person thinking differently, creatively, insightfully.
Here’s an example:
I recently worked with a leader who was talking to me about how much time they spend thinking about the future. Instead of giving them the answer on how to work out their time to allow for more of this (which is an answer), I asked them “As the leader of this team that you are responsible for, how much time do you think you should be spending thinking about the future and the longer term? And how could you make that happen?”
They stopped and reflected and came up with the answer for themselves, which means they are now going to put it into action. I gave them a question, not the answer.
So if you want to become an expert at asking questions, to connect with people, to learn and to create better answers, here are some of our top tips to consider.
What is the purpose of the questioning? Do you want to gather data? Do you want to create dialogue? Do you want to innovate? Or something else? This is important to be clear on so that you can target your questions to that purpose.
Open or closed questions? Open questions gather more information, but there are times when a quick yes or no is all you need or have time for – and then a closed question is the best option.
Use softening phrases. Too many questions can sound like an interrogation so think about how you can best frame the question to make it interesting for the other person to answer it. Here are some examples of softening phrases:
- I’m curious…
- I’m really interested in your thoughts on….
- Tell me more about ….
- In what way….?
Ask the question (with softening phrases if relevant). Here are some examples of great open questions:
- What do you think we should do next? What would you recommend?
- If you could do anything, what would you do?
- Where could we find that information, do you think?
The most important thing – LISTEN.
Ask questions without judgment. Don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions about what’s being said. Don’t think about how you will respond – just listen. It’s amazing to see what happens when we fully listen to other people, and how much we learn.
Thank them. Whomever you’ve talked to, whatever the subject – thank them. Make sure they know that you really appreciate their input.
Think about how to make the most of the insight you’ve had from talking to others. Consider the different views you’ve been privy to. Don’t forget to formally credit those that have given input, if relevant.
So think about it – who will you be meeting with today, tomorrow or next week? What questions can you prepare (in your head) to make that meeting interesting, productive, rewarding and maybe even transforming for both of you?