The value of inquiry, or powerful questioning, is well established and becoming even more relevant in today’s hyper-competitive, fast-changing, and unpredictable business environment.
The advantages are numerous and include:
- Encouraging employees to share their perspectives and ideas
- Enabling people to improve the quality of their problem-solving and achieve better solutions
- Improving self-awareness and self-mastery by empowering people to think for themselves and take greater ownership of their results and career
- Understanding root causes of challenges and problems
- Building greater commitment to change by working with people to co-create effective solutions rather than imposing change on them
However, studies show that leaders still use far more advocacy (i.e., putting forward arguments and imposing their own views), rather than engaging in questioning. This is frequently reinforced by the culture of the organization which encourages top-down ‘tell’ approaches to getting things done rather than listening, exploration and questioning. Leaders commonly fall into the “trap or illusion of expertise”. This happens when they feel they possess superior expertise and should have all the answers by virtue of their position and/or experience.
In his book “Humble Inquiry”, leading business author and psychologist, Edgar Schein, defines inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” This definition underscores the importance of being curious and asking open-ended questions to help improve the quality of problem-solving, overcome challenges and unlock a growth mindset.
In my coaching and leadership development work over several decades, I have observed many leaders make huge strides in the way they lead and influence others through focusing more time and effort on questioning rather than advocacy in regular 1-1 check-ins with employees, team and project meetings, coaching conversations, negotiations, customer interactions and other common interpersonal situations.
Asking powerful questions is natural to all of us, it’s something young children discover early on to facilitate learning and growth. However, adults (including leaders) often neglect this skill when they move beyond childhood. The good news is that it can be re-learned if practiced consciously and regularly.
To master the art of powerful questioning, you first need to build up your arsenal of powerful questions. In doing so, the following principles are important to keep in mind:
- Keep your question clear and straightforward. Avoid double-barrelled, long-winded, and indirect questions.
- Use open-ended questions starting with What…?, When…?, Where…?, Why…?, Who…? and How…? to invite people to open up and share how they really think and feel.
- Ask clarifying questions to build a clear and accurate understanding of what the person is saying.
- Use probing questions to explore responses in more depth.
- Avoid interrupting and imposing your solutions or opinions on others.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions that constructively challenge the person to reflect on their opinions, underlying assumptions, and any biases they may have. Inviting people to step into their “zone of discomfort” can give rise to breakthrough thinking provided it’s done with respect, tact and empathy.
- Sometimes it pays to act ignorant to pose breakthrough questions.
To help improve your questioning skill and behaviours, we have listed below examples of powerful questions you can ask in different situations.
Planning a new strategy
- What is our purpose? What is our vision or “picture of success?”
- Who are our most important customers?
- What do customers value most about our products and service? What additional value would they like that we’re not providing currently?
- What are the 5 strategic goals that will deliver the most value to stakeholders (customers, board, employees, etc.) during the next 3-5 years?
- How will we measure our success?
- Who owns this problem?
- What are the options? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each?
- What criteria will you use to evaluate the options?
- What additional input and data would help you make a better decision?
- Do you need to decide this right now? What will you gain by waiting?
Onboarding a new hire
- What do you see as your greatest challenges and opportunities in the new role?
- Do you have any questions or concerns at this stage?
- What would you like to learn from me?
- How can I best support you during the first few months?
- How often would you like check-ins to discuss how it’s going?
- What are you biggest achievements you are most proud of?
- What are the most motivating aspects of your job? And the least motivating?
- What new skills or capabilities will help you improve your performance?
- What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing? What options do you have to tackle this?
- How can I best support you?
- What outcome are you ideally looking for to resolve this?
- What aspects of my position/view do you agree with?
- Can you imagine a solution that might satisfy both of us (at least partially)? How can we move towards this?
- What are the risks (for us, the organization, and other stakeholders) if we don’t reach agreement?
- What positive steps can we take in the next 30 days to try to resolve this together?
- What questions do you have about why we are changing?
- What ideas do you have to help us with the planned change?
- How will the change impact the way you do your job? Is there anything we should be aware of that we haven’t yet considered?
- How are you feeling about the change?
- What concerns do you have? What help can I offer to help you with these concerns?
- What career options and pathways excite you the most?
- What are your standout strengths? How can you develop more skill and effectiveness in these areas?
- In the next 2-3 years, what would you most like to achieve in your career? What is the first step you can take towards this goal?
- What skill or capability area would you most like to develop to achieve your career goal/s?
- What support will you need to achieve your goal/s?
Developing your leadership effectiveness
- How can you measure your impact as a leader?
- What would your key stakeholders (manager, peers, and direct reports) say about your leadership strengths and improvement areas?
- What are your standout leadership strengths that co-workers value most? How can you take these to the next level to grow your leadership effectiveness?
- When have you come up short? How can you develop these areas?
- How will you adapt and develop yourself as a leader to be future-fit?
The art of powerful questioning is at the heart of effective leadership. It enables leaders to unlock the ideas, perspectives, and talents of those they are seeking to lead. It also helps leaders build strong relationships of trust, candour, and openness. So, if you want to be a great rather than a mediocre leader, start asking more powerful questions today.
Challenge yourself to improve your questioning skills and behaviours in a week with our 7-Day Powerful Questioning Challenge. You can access it here.