“Asking the right questions takes as much skill as giving the right answers.” (Robert Half)
One thing I have learned is that I do not have all the answers, and the moment I start to think that I do, I am headed for trouble. When I am approaching a problem, whether it is one that I need to solve myself, or a situation where I am correcting someone, I find that asking questions will most often lead to the best results.
In this section of principles, we are developing our leadership skills and looking to help people change without arousing resentment. This principle is about using the power of the well placed question to help other people find their own solutions, and see for themselves why what they had been doing wasn’t the best course of action.
I was watching a movie the other night (Men in Black 3), and one of the characters said that you should never ask a question you don’t want to know the answer to. That is sound advice. I have given similar advice to leader / managers when I was teaching a course to them. With this principle it is important to remember that when asking questions, you have to be ready for the answers.
Now, you can ask leading questions, as though you were some latter day Clarence Darrow at work in a courtroom. You can lead people by the nose with closed ended questions that get them to just what you had in mind. That can work, and it is certainly gentler than ramming your idea into their heads. But, is it really the best way to go about it? I don’t think so.
When I am addressing an issue with someone I lead, I ask a lot of questions, but I try to make them as open ended as possible. They will sometimes sound like these starters:
- I see you did X here. Tell me why you chose that.
- When you said Y, what exactly did you mean?
- When you made the decision go down the Z path, what factors did you consider?
- If you had that decision to make again, what might you do differently?
With all of these questions, I have to be willing to accept the answers that are given. And, if I am being really smart, I need to remind myself to be open to the possibility that I may hear something that is unexpected. I might just hear a rationale that I hadn’t considered, or a factor that I didn’t take into account.
Even though I may be approaching the situation with the idea of taking corrective actions, I may learn that the person made the best choice they could with the data and circumstances available. If that is the case, then it will take some work for the two of us to come to a meeting of the minds.
As I said above, I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes I might know a good way to go about doing something, and it might be better than the way someone else is doing it, but that doesn’t mean I think that my way is the best way.
I once had an Emergency Room Doctor take one of my classes. She very correctly pointed out that in a crisis, there isn’t time to ask questions. For her, sometimes being direct was the most prudent way to proceed. As with some of the other principles here, the advice does not work in every circumstance. She did agree, though, that after a crisis was over, using questions was a great way to debrief and learn how to do better next time.
When you are working to change someone, and you are looking to do so without arousing resentment, why not try…
Principle 25 – Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.