One of the most effective traits of leadership is knowing how to ask questions that yield useful information. The best questions cut through the clutter and noise to get to the heart of an issue, setting a basis for genuine and meaningful communications. These are open-ended questions, the kind that make connections and establish trust—the foundation of leadership.
Typically, open-ended questions begin with “how,” “what” or “who.” They aim to uncover from the other person not just what happened in a particular situation, but what motivated that person to take the actions he or she did and what they were thinking at the time.
Types of questions to avoid:
- Questions that require no more than a “yes” or “no” answer.
- “Leading” questions that tend to lead only to preconceived or assumed conclusions. These also tend to put the other party on the defensive.
- The same holds true for most questions beginning with “why.” The person you’re talking to feels they are being asked to justify their actions or decisions, rather than share information or insights.
When you meet with your executive team, ask questions like these:
- Can you tell me more about how you view this issue?
- How does this situation affect you and your staff?
- What thoughts do you have on this problem?
You can follow-up their answers with questions beginning with “so” or “did” or “which”—questions that summarize and confirm what they said and what you heard.
Open-ended questions are a great tool to use in a conversation where you disagree with the other person’s findings. Saying “I don’t agree with you” is guaranteed to shut the conversation down. Instead, ask, “What leads you to make that conclusion?” The other party’s answers may reveal something you don’t know about the situation and/or lead to a place of mutual agreement.
Other tips for getting the most from asking open-ended questions:
Be engaged. Your body language indicates to the other person whether you’re actively engaged in the conversation. Lean in. Offer positive facial expressions. This encourages a fuller response.
Focus on the present. Use questions to focus on what’s happening now, as well as identifying constructive actions to take and what may be learned from the experience.
Don’t do all the talking. Don’t use the answers to your open-ended questions as an excuse to talk at length about your own thoughts. Connections happen with an authentic give-and-take, not when one person (and that would almost always be the leader) does all the talking.
Go deeper. The answers you get to your open-ended questions may surprise you. Pursue those lines of thought, even if they veer into areas the other person is hesitant to discuss. That’s where you get information that can truly benefit you and your business.
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