Are you a successful communicator? When you think of yourself as a communicator, how much of your energy do you spend telling people things, and how much of it do you spend asking questions?
A bright executive once discovered her team had been working nights to solve a complicated problem.
“I was a bit surprised,” she told me. “Not at their dedication, but at the fact that they hadn’t included me in the process.”
“What do you think was going on, there?” I asked.
“I’m ashamed to tell you,” she replied. “They said they had been afraid to include me – that I am capable of making quick assumptions without asking the right questions. And that they saw so many more possibilities by remaining open to new ideas outside the box.”
“Did it work?” I countered.
“Yes,” she sighed. “I don’t sound excited, do I? I really am – at their results. But I’m deeply disappointed in me. Guess it’s time to work on my leadership in that area.”
Most of the time, we have a tendency to assume that successful communication—and success in general—comes down to saying the right things, and having all the right answers. In reality, though, the quality of our answers completely depends on the kind of questions we’ve been willing to ask. Good questions are far more powerful than answers. They help to reframe and redefine the problem, throwing cold water on tightly held assumptions.
So what does it mean to ask the right questions? Some questions—often the ones that make us feel most comfortable—don’t invite any challenges or require much insight. Others, though, are more powerful, and tend to share some of these characteristics:
They stimulate reflective thinking, deeper thought or consideration
They generate fresh ideas and provoke exploration
They get both sides of the story
They get to the bottom of things
They challenge assumptions
They help create open and productive communication.
One of the biggest differences between a surface-level question and a more powerful question is that more powerful questions tend to be a little disruptive. They’re not always easy to answer, and—a lot of the time—the answer calls for some kind of action or effort.
For example, you might ask yourself “what bad habits do I need to stop?” “What matters to me most right now?” “If nothing were in my way, and I knew everything would turn out well, what would I want to do?” and “What’s stopping me?” Similarly, you might ask your employees/colleagues “What’s most important to you about this?” “How can we make this fair/fun?” “What support do you need?” or “What can we learn from this?”
We don’t always ask questions like this because they require a certain level of willingness to step out of our comfort zone, to be open to other people’s suggestions, and to change things up if necessary. If we’re going to ask questions like this—whether we’re asking ourselves or someone else—we need to be prepared to listen skillfully.
Once we figure out how to ask the right questions, the results can be profound. I challenge you to try it this week.
To your success!
Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.