The Howells Group Blog

Leading Through Powerful Questions

As managers and leaders, we often feel we are paid primarily for “answers” to help solve the many challenges that surround us. At times, this is true, but is only part of the success equation.  Learning to ask penetrating and insightful questions from a genuinely open and curious mindset is a powerful leadership skill.  With most employees and customers “flying at gusts of over 100 mph” most days, people and groups take little or often no time for reflection and consideration. They frequently do not clarify their assumptions. It’s common for them to take a “surface cut” at important decisions without fully examining the consequences. When solving problems, groups often become stuck in one way of thinking and acting, unaware of their habits. Masterful leaders offer the right questions at the right time to assist others to “look into” their own thinking. First – some fundamental “do’s and don’ts” to follow, whether you are working with one or one hundred people:

Do Don’t
Use open ended questions that can’t be answered “yes” or “no” Ask close ended questions – you get limited information and they don’t engage dialogue
Understand your employee/vendor/customers key issues in order to formulate quality questions Ask rote questions; the same each time
Allow time for adequate dialogue & conversation Save all questions for the end of the conversation/meeting
Ask questions in a friendly, interested way and genuinely curious manner Ask questions in an “interrogating tone” so people feel attacked
Make eye contact and listen carefully Look away or interrupt the other person
Listen to respond, often with another question Listen in order to have “the right answer”
Positively acknowledge each & every response Ignore responses, argue or “make others wrong”
Ask one clearly stated question at a time, rephrasing only if needed Ask long, complex questions; or several at a time
Allow silence and silently “count to 10” if needed Fill the airspace constantly with your voice!
Connect fragmented ideas into whole themes Leave the group’s responses “unconnected”
Encourage others in the group to ask questions, too Dominate with your questions only

Secondly, many people ask me “how do you know when to ask a question”? Here are a few tips that help me know it’s time to “ask” and not “tell”:

1. Are a few participants dominating and advocating their point of view in the session?
2. Does the group seem disengaged or lagging in enthusiasm?
3. Is a transition needed in the presentation/conversation?
4. Are you hearing the sound of your own voice by itself for too long?!
5. Do you need to redirect the group off of a topic they are “stuck on”?
6. Does the group need to think more deeply about a key point in the discussion/presentation?

© 2010 The Howells Group

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