Why these queries are an essential tool for leaders

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.” He knows that better questions yield better results. In my practice as a Vistage Chair, I ask many questions to help my members think differently and see new possibilities.

And I encourage them, in turn, to use the right type of questions to deepen relationships, solve business problems and develop their employees.

I categorize questions into three types:

1. Closed questions can be used when you need specific information and a short conversation. “When did you mail John’s check?” is a closed question.

2. Leading questions already have an embedded answer in them, and they are often delivered in an accusatory tone. Trial attorneys use them expertly. In your leadership role, NEVER ask questions that imply judgement and blame like, “Did you try talking to him?”

3. Open questions do not lead to a specific answer, are delivered in a neutral tone and are used when you want to truly engage another in a deep dialogue. Open questions:

  are focused on learning more about the individual, not about satisfying a need of the asker. Stephen Covey describes this as “seek first to understand.”

  require some thought and reflection.

  promote insight.

■  uncover hidden opinions and feelings.

  allow the asker to be in control by steering the direction and depth of the conversation.

Here are some tools for asking open questions correctly:

1. Convert a covert recommendation to a real question: Is your question really just a recommendation with a question mark? If it starts with “Have you tried..?”, then it is. Replace “Have you tried..?” with what, how, when or tell me more.

2. Delivery: The age-old saying, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it,” refers to tone of voice. Using the wrong tone will shut down meaningful dialogue. Make sure to ask your question in a caring and curious tone of voice.

3. Use silence: This might seem counterintuitive, but 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 your question, and then wait for a response. Expect some discomfort and more silence. Let it be there. Do not be the first one to break the silence!

4. Use “If you did know…” as a follow up: Occasionally, you will receive the unhelpful 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, most people will provide an answer.

Open questions are an underutilized tool.

Use them often and discover their power in your next conversation.

Cheryl B. McMillan is Chair, Northeast Ohio, at Vistage International