How asking powerful questions can help you win

Many different frameworks for using questions have been discussed throughout history as far back as the Socratic Method. For example, interrogation is a key technique in the legal field for examining witnesses.

We want you to think of questions as a starting point for taking a team on a journey. If leaders use just what’s in their own head to take a team somewhere, they are capped by their own knowledge. On the other hand, if leaders ask genuine, open questions of the team — and that doesn’t mean giving up responsibility for where the team needs to go—they are no longer limited to just what they know. Everyone can participate in getting to a new place.

What makes great questions?

There are several key elements to keep in mind when forming open, curious questions. They must be authentic and genuine. That means the speaker is searching honestly for new ideas and doesn’t have a predetermined set of answers or a very narrow goal in mind. Questions allow people to leave behind some of their own preconceived notions and encourage them think in ways they themselves had not thought previously.

Great questions avoid the appearance of blame. Say somebody got hurt on a factory floor, and the team leader is coming in to explore the circumstances. He has to avoid, as his first question, “How could this happen and who did it?” That sort of an opening bombardment will just shut people down or prompt them to justify what they’ve done.

On the other hand, if he asks, “How can we be sure this doesn’t ever happen again?” he’ll get a very different kind of response. People can join with him in finding an answer, and they could end up with a new approach to keeping the work environment safe.

Some of our favorite examples of completely open-ended questions that stem from genuine curiosity are:

  • “How can we maximize our position?”
  • “How can we make sure that such and such won’t happen again?
  • “What needs attention to achieve your desired outcome?”
  • “What would have to be true for ‘x’ to happen?”

There’s a sequence for asking open, inquisitive questions. First, you have to understand the context. Second, you have to make sure your tone and other nonverbal signals support what you’re trying to do. Finally, you ask the right question.

Leaders often think about these things in the reverse order. They open with a question with little or no context, and their tone and body language don’t encourage participants to explore or jointly resolve a situation.
The art of asking the great question is a combination of thinking and performing. It’s about understanding your purpose, context, and audience (which is why you first spend time reflecting), and then forming a question and asking it with the right tone and posture.

If you pound your fist on the table while asking a question, you are going to get a very different result than if you ask the same question while turning up both your palms. The content of the question is the main thing, but, if it’s not delivered in the right way, it won’t work. Learner leadership allows you to be conscious of both what and how you communicate.

Allan Milham brings high-energy and passion as a senior leadership and performance strategist. He has logged over 10,000 hours working with top performers– from his early days with Olympians to Fortune 50 companies– since 1998. Allan’s work has been called transformational, as he elevates a leader’s presence and brand to create greater results, as well as living a fulfilled and purposeful life.
In addition to Out of the Question: How Curious Leaders Win, Allan is also the co-author of Who Are You … When You Are Big? and Bold Moves: Jump to Outstanding Self-Managed Action.

Guy Parsons is a well-regarded speaker, teacher who regularly delivers inspiring talks at MIT and to leaders involved in YPO (Young Presidents Organization) and EO (Entrepreneur Organization). He is the president of Value Stream Solution and was elected to the Shingo Institute Board of Advisors.
Over the past 20 years, he has worked with more than 120 companies across a wide range of industries from healthcare to financial services to private equity. Through his work, he has developed a passion for the people side of change management.