During one of our Leaders Create Leaders workshop last week, a participant commented if I could just give him the formulae, instructions and action plan to be a great leader, and stop asking so many questions and making them talk so much. Alas, we live in a corporate world where giving instructions and advices are usually more valued than asking questions. When we give advices, we get valued, get promoted and get praised for them. When we ask questions, we feel less certain, conversation gets slower, and there is a sense of loss of control.
Yet asking questions is at the very heart of great leadership and coaching. Because all transformation happens in their heads, not ours. Thus all answers must come from them, not us. And to get great answers, leaders must master the art of asking great questions.
As the great Irish Poet Oscar Wilde mentioned, ” The answers are all out there, we just need to ask the right questions”. From my years of coaching experiences, here are my top 5 tips for asking great questions:
#No. 1: Keep It Simple
Stop building up stories and give long introductions before asking the question. Go straight to the point. Like a James Bond movie, go straight to the question right from the beginning and keep the suspense and focus on the question. As much as possible, keep your question as short as possible, around 5 to 8 words. This will force clarity into your question, instead of a long-winded one that leads to confusion. Keep the main thing, the main thing.
#No.2: Ask Real Questions
Ask questions with the intention to discover new perspectives, not with the intention to lead to your answer. It’s almost like “I have an answer I really want you to have, so I have to ask you a series of questions to help lead you in”. Questions like “Hey, have you thought about….”are not really questions. If we really need to give advice, give it as it is. Don’t disguise it.
#No.3: Shut up
Don’t follow up a question with a few more words, and then another question, followed by another question. These will just make your partner overwhelmed, instead of helping them understand better. If your question is great, one question is enough. Get comfortable with silence, and hold the silence there for your partner. We can be supportive in our body language and offer a light smile as our partner comes up with their own answer.
#No. 4: Stay Present
When listening to the answer, remain present to the conversation. Forget all about the body language that experts ask you to do, nod your head, offer soft grunts of approval etc. If you are really present, you don’t have to even think about faking it. Just listening attentively and empathetically without thinking about what you are having next for lunch or what your next question (or answer) will be. If you are present, the next question will come without asking.
#No.5: Never Stop At One
Never take the first answer as the answer. Like peeling an onion, have courage and patience to peel off the layers to go to the root of the issue. Follow up with questions like “What else?” and “What do you think the real challenge here is?”, will help lead you to the answer beneath the answer.
When we ask questions, it is very much like caving, where we step into darkness, with uncertainties, and not knowing where we are going. It is about letting go of the outcome, and at the same time trusting the beam of your question will illuminate some clarity and choice for your partner. And yourself. Happy asking.