How to Become a Leader: Ask Questions First

Business.com / Managing / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Leaders seek information by asking pertinent questions, not by talking at people. Discover tips on how to excel at leadership.

Journalists, if they are worth anything, spend much of their professional time asking questions. Figuring out the right question(s) to put to sources is the toughest task of being a journalist, in my opinion as a former newsroom denizen.

That right question, however, is akin to Archimedes’ lever. Applied correctly, it can move the world.  

The same goes for business executives. True leaders spend more time asking questions and listening to the replies than they do talking. In fact, asking questions is part of what Julie Chance, a leadership, and team development consultant, calls “Leader Language.”

I love that concept, Leader Language. Big Data is all the rage these days, but no leader ever inspires people with bits and bytes, zeros and ones. She moves mountains with language. Words may not break bones literally, but they can break hearts, or knit a team together profoundly.

Chance maintains that using words to ask questions can help make executives more successful leaders, more effective managers, and more valuable employees.

Since questions cost nothing to implement, it’s at least worth a shot.

Related Article:What Does Your Leadership Style Say About You?

Questions Are Powerful

Chance offers several reasons for questions being a more powerful form of communication than statements. 

  1. Questions engage the brain of those asked.
  2. People are more likely to believe what they hear themselves speak than what they hear someone else say.
  3. The information in answers often helps clarify a situation better than making assumptions and reaching premature conclusions.
  4. Questions open up possibilities.

When Chance is coaching, she stresses the importance of asking questions and tries to practice what she preaches. She was working with a young man who was not getting the concept of asking questions during a sales call. Finally, after about an hour or so, his face brightened and he remarked, “You have been modeling what you want me to do you are moving me through your agenda by asking me questions.” If she had been telling instead of asking, he would not have experienced that flash of insight.

Chance says that not only journalists but people in all walks of life lack the critical skill of being able to frame questions to elicit information effectively. She provides three tips to improve the quality and quantity of an executive’s or professional’s questions:

Tip 1: Set the context

Jumping into queries without providing context can put the person being questioned on the defensive. Chance and a friend were doing a sales call a couple of years ago. Afterward, they were talking and she suspected that their prospect felt a little interrogated by all the questions. The two realized they had not provided any background for the questions.

Before the questions, state your purpose for asking. For example, “So that I can be sure and tailor the information I provide to your needs, may I ask you a few questions?” Giving the questions context and politely asking for permission reassures the person that this is not an interrogation.

Related Article:10 Principles of Success: Quotes to Inspire from Jim Rohn

Transform Telling Into Asking

Tip 2: When you start to tell, catch yourself

Pay heed to how often you tell or make statements versus asking. When you notice that you are telling someone something, challenge yourself to turn that statement into a question.

For example, the next time you start to tell one of your employees specifically what you want them to do to solve a problem, just stop. Instead, ask this person what he or she thinks should be done to resolve the issue successfully. The employee may well come up with an even better idea than you had. It’s always easier to get someone to buy into her own ideas than yours.

Tip 3: Try “Q-Storming”

Chance learned this technique from the book, Change Your Questions Change Your Life by Marilee Adams. Look for new questions instead of answers. Start by describing the problematic situation and your desired outcome. Then identify the assumptions you have about the situation.

Brainstorm questions in the first person (I) or third person (we). For example, “How can we improve accuracy?” or “What can I do to be more creative?” After brainstorming the questions, pay special attention to any that you have not asked before.

Two Types of Questions

Chance also points out that the two types of questions elicit different information and are appropriate in varying contexts. The first is the open question, which permits a freer response and tends to start with who, what, where, when, how, or why. The second is the closed question, which brings out yes-or-no answers. These questions can make people feel like they are being interrogated, something to avoid, and also limit the quantity and sometimes the quality of the responses you get.

Related Article: The Rise of Toxic Leaders And What We Can Do About It

Chance suggests using open questions when you want to get a wide range of information. Use closed questions to seek commitment or to limit the amount of information you receive. Closed questions are sometimes helpful when communicating with someone who tends to go off track or loses focus. Above all, keep in mind that if you are not prepared and willing to listen to the responses to the questions, all the questions in the world most likely will contribute to your business problems rather than help solve them.

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