Got questions?

by  Jane Perdue  |  Creating Value
Got Questions?

When I was growing up, I envied the little boy next door. His mom asked him questions. Would you like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or soup for lunch?  Will you spend the afternoon reading a book or playing?

My mom told me how it was going to be.

While I don’t think she intended it this way, her factual style of asking and telling was a good life lesson for dealing with bosses who managed by command-and-control and wanted answers straight up.

As I grew older, the questions my dad asked became different. He asked lots of “either/or,” “have you thought about,” “how/why,” and “help me understand” questions. Dad said he wanted to make sure I thought things through. He prepared me to work for bosses who wanted thoughtful converging or diverging answers and options.

A few years into my career, I worked for a boss who asked a whole new style of questions. He tested both logic and emotion. His rational was like that of Socrates, who was “well known for using questioning to probe the validity of an assumption, analyze the logic of an argument, and explore the unknown.” That boss wanted to know how we were going to achieve both quality and quantity or how we would meet our short-term goals without jeopardizing our long-term position. Answering his questions required deeper thought and analysis of the big picture.

Only years later did it hit me that these individuals had given me the gift of a well-rounded repertoire of different types of questions.

The key to wisdom is this: constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question, by questioning we arrive at the truth. ~Peter Abelard

Questions matter.

Questions lead to answers, help us discover meaning and eliminate confusion, or point to hidden agendas. They help us reflect, develop critical thinking skills, or clarify intent and understanding. Questions help us make sense of our surroundings, distinguish fact from fiction, or define our purpose. Questions provoke lively debate, satisfy our curiosity, and prompt us to assess our assumptions.

A good question can disrupt, inspire, show humility, and open closed doors.

Research done by O.C. Tanner Institute showed that “asking the right question increased the odds of someone’s work having a positive effect on others by 4.1 times. It made the outcome 3.1 times more likely to be deemed important, 2.8 times more likely to create passion in the doer, and 2.7 times more likely to make a positive impact on the organization’s bottom line.” That’s powerful stuff.

He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever. ~Chinese proverb

So why do we ask questions less and less as we get older?

Tom Pohlmann and Neethi Mary Thomas with Mu Sigma polled 200 of their clients on question asking. Clients who had children estimated that 70-80% of their kids’ dialogues with others were comprised of questions. However, those same clients guessed that only 15-25% of their own interactions consisted of questions. Tom and Neethi attribute the reduction in the number of questions asked by the adults to working in a you-need-to-get-it-done-yesterday business environment.

Their advice? “Leaders should encourage people to ask more questions, based on the goals they’re trying to achieve, instead of having them rush to deliver answers. In order to make the right decisions, people need to start asking the questions that really matter.”

Asking questions that really matter + actively listening to the answer + critically reviewing what’s been shared = a good life practice.

How has a specific type of questioning made a difference in your leadership journey? Tell me about it in the comments!
Photo Credit: Pixabay

About The Author

Articles By jane-perdue
Jane is a leadership futurist and well-mannered maverick who challenges stereotypes, sacred cows, gender bias & how we think about power. She loves chocolate, TED, writing, kindness, paradox and shoes.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Mary C. Schaefer  |  12 Jun 2017  |  Reply

Jane, what a great topic and post. Thank you!

Through my coaching training, one of the best questions I’ve learned to use is, “When you use the word ____, what do you mean?” Even when I’m pretty sure I know what they mean, it allows for the other to elaborate and think out loud. This is nearly always helpful in collaboration or to quell conflict.

Thanks again, Jane!

Jane Perdue  |  12 Jun 2017  |  Reply

What a great question to ask, Mary. I’m sure it leads to insights that would have not been discovered if the question hadn’t been asked. Something as simple as life experiences or as complex as social conditioning determines how we interpret a word. Big thanks for sharing!

Kathryn Bingham  |  12 Jun 2017  |  Reply

I love the exploration and possibilities generated by questions.

Thanks for sharing how your experiences with questioning shaped your thinking and equipped you in life and work. Inquiry offers a powerful means to facilitate creative thought.

Jane Perdue  |  13 Jun 2017  |  Reply

Kathryn — thank you for sharing! Totally agree with you about the power of advocacy. It, and “its cousin” advocacy (tactful, of course!) are skills worthy of more use.

Gary Gruber  |  13 Jun 2017  |  Reply

Great questions are remembered because they stick with us for a reason. I participate in a Twitter chat every Sunday morning that usually has about 10 questions and the first one is usually the same format with a little different content. It is “When you think about or sit with (topic of the day) what feelings does it evoke or what comes to mind?” And we are off and running for a full and rich hour of Q & A and conversation. This is similar to Mary Schaefer’s comment above. Another question I liked to ask was, “What question haven’t I asked that would be helpful?” That was intended to elicit more information When I was given a choice between either/or I often tried to see if I could switch it over to both/and unless it was a choice between something desirable and undesirable.
My most favorite question of students (and teachers when appropriate) was, “Is this your best work?” That usually resulted in a rich conversation about how it could be better. I have a story, for another time, that illustrates how that works to get better writing or research from a student, or a colleague. Asking the right question does take people farther and deeper and such a worthwhile investment of time for mutual benefits.

Jane Perdue  |  14 Jun 2017  |  Reply

Gary, I imagine you could write a fascinating book about the various answers you received to your question, “Is this your best work?” That’s an insightful question that prompts introspection…something we sometimes don’t make enough time for as leaders. Questions are both a gift and tool. Big thanks for sharing!

Erin Browning  |  14 Jun 2017  |  Reply

Jane, loved your topic and post. I have a question about your preparation for asking questions in meetings. Do you have ‘canned’ questions ready when you go into a scheduled meeting or do you just react to the situation, or maybe a combination of the two?

Jane Perdue  |  14 Jun 2017  |  Reply

Hi, Erin — thank you for your kind words! In response to your question, I’m a both/and question preparer *smile* I like to go into a meeting with a list of questions for which I need answers. Preparing that list assures that I’m doing my own critical thinking in advance. Then, as the meeting unfolds, I ask more questions. Thanks for asking! What’s your style?

Chris Pehura  |  16 Jun 2017  |  Reply

I think asking the question is not nearly as important as the intent for asking the question. Maybe, I’m asking a question not because I don’t know the answer. Maybe I’m asking it so you will know the answer.

The fastest way to change someone’s mood or way of thinking is by asking a question. For instance, I want to go out with my wife to dinner tonight. I can ask her –

“Where do you want to go that is romantic?”

Or I can ask –

“Where do you want to go that won’t suck?”

Though the same question, the answer and it’s thought process behind it is different.

Jane Perdue  |  20 Jun 2017  |  Reply

Agreed! Being open to asking questions is, in my mind, the mark of a leader with character and one who is strong enough to be vulnerable. And, as you point out, we can shape the mood, the answer, the interaction, etc. by asking the right question. Did you ask that question of your wife *smile*?

Jane Perdue  |  20 Jun 2017  |  Reply

And…thank you for sharing!

john soulliere  |  16 Jun 2017  |  Reply

I work with a person who doesn’t ask questions because he prides himself on already knowing the answers. He doesn’t handle questions very well, either. He gets noticeably uncomfortable in Q&A dialogue even though the information being sought is essential for clear direction. Tough situation and quite wasteful when work product is completed only to learn that the unspoken expectation sends it back to the drawing board.

Jane Perdue  |  20 Jun 2017  |  Reply

Oh my goodness, John — I can identity with your situation as I’ve worked for the same kind of person. Fortunately, in that scenario, his boss finally took action. Here’s hoping your situation can be resolved as well. Good luck…thanks for sharing.

Stefan Deutsch  |  18 Jun 2017  |  Reply

Hi Jane,

When teaching my theories about human development, love, aging, parenting, I always mention my foundation – a BA in philosophy – which taught me to ask questions, and the dictum that if you ask the wrong question you get a wrong answer. Philosophy 101 should be a required subject in freshman year – and it should focus as much on teaching the practical application of it – asking questions – as on the history of philosophy.

Jane Perdue  |  20 Jun 2017  |  Reply

Stefan — well put! Philosophy does make everyone a better leader. Probably a better lots of things! A focus on values, character, virtues, wisdom—how can you go wrong?! I love David Brendel’s advice on taking advice from Socrates, Aristotle, Nietzsche, and the Existentialists:

“Socrates: What is the most challenging question someone could ask me about my current approach?

Aristotle: What character virtues are most important to me and how will I express them?

Nietzsche: How will I direct my “will to power,” manage my self-interest, and act in accordance with my chosen values?

Existentialists (e.g., Sartre): How will I take full responsibility for my choices and the outcomes to which they lead?”

Big thanks for sharing!

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