The Art of Question Asking: The Other Half of Empathic Listening

Elvis Costello keeps singing in my head. “What so hard about peace, love and understanding?” It starts me thinking about today’s topic: What’s so hard about asking a question?

question Why Is Question Asking Important?

In my practice as a Vistage Chair, I use a Socratic approach with my members, asking questions that help them think differently and consider  new possibilities. I encourage my members to use questions for building and deepening relationships, solving problems, and developing and empowering their employees. Most importantly, the right questions, delivered with sincerity and openness, help them identify new solutions to their real issues. Empathic listening has the power to change businesses and personal relationships. Asking effective questions is half of true listening.

Types of Questions

I categorize questions into three types: 1) leading, 2) open-ended and 3) closed. Leading questions have an implied or explicit answer or assumption. Trial attorneys use them expertly. In your CEO role, NEVER use them. Leave that “tool” for the attorneys.

An open-ended question is one that does not lead and is appropriate when you want to engage another in a deep dialogue. True open ended questions have the following characteristics:

  • They are focused on learning more about the individual, not about satisfying a need of the asker.
  • They are asked neutrally, with no emotional charge, hidden suggestion, assumption or contradictory body language from the
    asker.
  • They require some thought and reflection.
  • They promote insight.
  • They uncover opinions and feelings.
  • They allow the question asker to be in control by
    steering the direction and depth of the conversation.
  • They usually require more than a one or two word
    answer.

Closed questions can be answered quickly, usually without significant thought. Use them when you want a shorter conversation.

The Transition From Know-it-All To Question Asker

You may think that you are expected to be the answer person; that not knowing makes you look weak or stupid. For the short term, it is usually
easier and quicker for you to provide answers rather than stimulate others to
think by asking them questions. At some point, you will reach your answer limit. You will become stuck in “answer mode”, find that 24 hours a day is
insufficient and discover that you have a company full of order takers and no
thinkers.

Where do you start? When an employee asks you for answer, ask him, “That’s a good question. I don’t know. What do you think?”  After he replies, thank him for his recommendation and ask a few clarifying questions, if necessary. Then tell him that he has the authority to solve future issues like this and does not need to check in with you. You have started two important processes here: 1) you have begun using effective questions and 2) the employee is feeling more responsible.

“Tricks” of the Trade

Technique: Converting questions to open-ended

The most common mistake my members use when we are in “question mode” during an issue discussion, is to put a question mark at the end of a recommendation. For example, a member may “ask”, “Have you tried sitting down with them and explaining the consequences of their actions so that next time you can just fire them?” His voice inflects at the very end, trying to convince everyone, especially himself, that this is really an open-ended question. We all laugh, because we know otherwise. Like any other skill, to become a master at asking effective open-ended questions, you must continuously practice.

You can convert a leading question into an open-ended one by replacing the beginning  words of your question in the first column below with the ones in the second  column:

Instead of: Begin questions with:
“Have you tried…”“What were you thinking…”“Did you…” “What…”, “How…”,“Please describe…, “Where…, “When…,“Can you tell me more about…”

Here are some specific examples:

Leading Questions: Open Ended Questions
  •   “Have  you tried…”
  •   “What have you tried?”
  •   “Are you angry (happy, sad, confused, etc.)?”
  •   “How is this affecting you?”
  •  “Do you want to increase profit?”
  •   “What  is your desired outcome?”
  •   “Are you using x and y to evaluate your decision?”
  •   “What are your criteria for evaluating the solution?”
  •   “What did we do wrong?”
  •   “What  did we learn?”

Technique: Personal Delivery:

Consider this passage in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, edited by Peter Senge: Among the tribes of northern Natal in South Africa, the most common greeting, equivalent to “hello” in English, is the expression: “sawu bona.” It literally means, “I see you.” If you are a member of the tribe, you might reply by saying “sikhona” or “I am here.” The order of the exchange is important: until you see me, I do not exist. It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me into existence. (Susan Scott, Fierce Conversation, 2004)

To create an atmosphere of trust and honesty, the other person needs to feel seen and heard; that they are an equal partner in the conversation. You must ask the questions in a neutral manner. Your questions must come from authenticity and a genuine concern for an individual.

Over 90% of communication is non-verbal, and the other person will immediately sense any incongruity between your words and how they are delivered. You must not lead, prompt or interrupt. Under no circumstance force them into opening up, as it will cause them to withdraw and distrust you.

Authenticity requires you to identify your “noise” which interferes with you hearing what the other is saying. Begin listening to yourself. Notice your feelings or opinions as they appear and how they impact your communication. Your tone and body language are already telegraphing them. Learn how to allow your discomfort, and, at the same time, be open to another’s opinion that may be 180° different than yours. As one of my members said, “Sometimes this self-awareness stuff sucks.” (Yes, if it were
easy, anyone could do it.)

Technique: Use Silence

Although this seems like a paradox, it is a very effective technique to use when you want someone to answer a difficult question or when you want to slow down the conversation. Ask the question and then wait for a response. Most likely, there will be discomfort and more silence. Let it be there. Wait until the other person answers before you respond. I use this all the time. My members know it and say “I know you are not going to say anything until I answer.” Then, they answer the question!

Technique: “If You Did Know…”

Sometimes, you will receive the dreaded answer, “I don’t know.” Don’t accept it. Instead, ask, “If you did know, what would your answer be?” After a quick laugh and a “What kind of question is that?” look, my members answer the question about 95% of the time.

Master listeners and question askers make it look easy, just like a pro golfer who makes their 350 foot, down-the-middle drive, look effortless. But like the pro golfer, asking effective questions takes practice. Your potential reward, though, is great. Asking effective questions can solve many of your problems, raise your company’s IQ and free up some of your busy day. What is stopping you?

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