I’ve seen questioning used to undermine confidence, interrogate scapegoats, and sabotage team cohesion. Leaders who use questions in this way are in fact self-sabotaging and breaking down team culture.
Which is a shame because, when used well, questioning can be a deeply rewarding approach to growing people, managing risks and building loyalty.
When as leaders can help our direct reports to think more deeply about a situation they’re facing, the result is that we help them to come up with their own solutions. And those are the best ones because those are the ones they are most deeply emotionally connected to – their solutions, not ours – and are most likely to follow-through on.
So, as long as they are good solutions, you’re onto a winner.
Here are some ways you should be using questions to help people think deeply.
Use questions to expand thinking and curiosity. The ancient philosopher Socrates believed that questioning is intimately connected with critical thinking, so to borrow his approach as psychotherapists of today have, we can guide our people through a set of questions to expand their thinking and their curiosity about their own situation all the way through to resolving their own situation. Sort of like a mind map but in a conversation
Use questions to create forward momentum – by that I mean, help your direct report to explore their situation in a way that moves them forward and gets them unstuck. Moves them from feeling defeated and out of control to feeling energised and positive. Exploring options and consequences is one example of creating forward momentum because trying things on for size helps us evaluate an option so as to rule it out or to act on it.
As well as being spontaneous in conversations and directly responding to what your direct report is saying and thinking, it’s important that you keep your questions succinct. Succinct questions are easier for people to process – they don’t have to decipher what we mean and it doesn’t interrupt their flow of thought.
For the same reasons, we need to avoid stacking our questions, which means asking more than one question in each exchange. If we ask 2-3 questions in one breath, we put people in the predicament of trying to work out which question to answer first and clutters up their thinking and their response.
Keeping questions succinct and not stacking our questions are particularly important if your direct report or conversation partner has a neurodiversity condition like ADHD or ASD, on the autism spectrum.
Another way we can limit people’s ability to think deeply is when we ask closed questions that warrant a very short answer, or Yes or No responses — these typically start with “Do you…?” “Did you” OR ”Are you..?” You want to ask open questions that generally begin with What, Why, When, Where, How and Who. Take care with your tone when asking “why” questions because it can come across as judgemental.
Which brings me to my next point. How we ask questions and when we ask them are also important – these are linked to the mood of the moment and what makes sense, feels right, to explore in that moment – so be thoughtful and intentional in your tone and timing
And if all that doesn’t motivate you to brush up on your questioning skills, then how about this. Some research tells us that asking good questions can make people like us more, and that is likely to do with how asking good questions and giving our client our undivided attention, makes them feel good, releasing dopamine and oxytocin in the process.
They like us more and trust us more because we take a genuine interest in them. And that’s what deepens their emotional connection to us as leaders.