#14 - One of the most helpful tools in your leaders' tool kit is your QUESTION POWER, the ability to ask just the right question at just the right time. What's the right question, and what's the right time? Join Dr. Charles Boyer for a discussion and some practice on sample questions.
Hello there, and Welcome to Keys for New Leaders, a podcast just for YOU, the new leader. I’m so glad you’re joining us today. This is your host, Dr. Charles Boyer, but to my friends, I’m just Charlie – and that’s YOU, my friend. If you’ve already subscribed, thank you so much. If you haven’t, now is the time! It’s always so good to see more subscribers on the list each week. We currently have downloads in 86 different cities and 11 countries. That’s fantastic!
Episode 12 was about ME POWER. Episode 13 was about LAUGH POWER. We’ll continue with one more in sort of a mini-series, and call this Episode #14, QUESTION POWER. One of the most helpful tools in your leaders’ tool kit – if there IS such a thing – is your QUESTION POWER, the ability to ask just the right question at just the right time.
And the question is – what’s the right question, and what’s the right time? Well, that’s a bit complicated. The answer is – many things that we’ve touched on in several previous episodes. The answer involves your commitment to serve others as a leader, it involves your core values and how well you are in sync with them, it involves the level of trust and credibility you’ve developed, how well you listen, and how willing you are to get out of your own way and help others do their best. That’s a tall order!
Serving others as a leader is not an easy job, and I, for one, want to thank you for all your extra effort and your willingness to serve. These seem to be difficult times to be in a leadership role, and is all the more challenging to be a good mentor, an example-setter, a take-charge person, coach, and confidant – just a few of the many hats leaders have to wear.
As a leader who serves others, I believe you must be more of a coach than a mentor, or as Sue Brage wrote, more of a “guide alongside than a sage on the stage.” A leader who is more coaching oriented is someone who:
· Is a relationship builder, who values the talents of others and empowers them to succeed
· Listens to and believes in those he/she leads
· Pushes you to discover a solution, not give you the answer
· Helps others set and keep clear intentions, goals and action steps, and who will hold you accountable
· Partners with team members and doesn’t try to do everything him/herself
· Doesn’t have all the answers but who asks good questions!
Asking good questions is so important. Like so many other things, it takes a lot of practice to be comfortable doing it and doing it well. In this episode, we’ll give you some good pointers about how to develop good questions and give you some examples of questions that can work for you – and some examples to avoid!
Good leaders ask good questions of themselves, of their teams and team members to keep things moving forward toward accomplishing goals. So let’s work on building your QUESTION POWER. There are several KEYS to framing and asking good questions. Good questions are open-ended, non-judgmental, and invite an open, honest response. Good questions require good listening without filtering or making assumptions about what is said and how it is said. Good questions help the team member clarify the problem, expand the thinking about solutions to the problem, challenge the team member’s self-limitations, and encourage the person’s best efforts toward success. Good questions always focus on the other person, not on you.
It's hard to frame an example question out of the blue, so let’s assume that a member of your team comes to you with a problem – the team member is stuck and can’t solve the problem or complete the project. If you asked a question like “Did you do this step?” or “Have you tried this?” it will get you nowhere. These are both closed end yes/no questions, they are somewhat judgmental, and they won’t help solve the problem at all.
Asking a question like “What’s working well for you right now?” begins to reach a solution right away. It focuses on the positive (what’s working) rather than on the negative (being stuck). Then a follow-up question might be something like this: “What other approaches might work?” That gets the old brain in gear to start considering other options or possibilities, and takes the focus off being stuck. Did you notice - that these two questions are open-ended, non-judgmental, and they invite a response. And there is no “I” or “me” in either of them – it helps focus on the other person, not you. You need to listen, not give a lecture on how you would solve the problem.
Another way to help someone who is stuck might be something like this: The team member says, “I’m not sure how to get this problem solved.” What do you hear in what he/she is telling you? Some hesitation or stalling, perhaps? You might ask, “What’s the most fun way you can think of to solve this?” That gets the brain to re-focus on some possibilities rather than on being stuck. Or you could ask, “Who can help you with this?” That invites them to think of others on the team who could lend some support or assistance. Or you might ask, ”Which of your strengths will you use to resolve this?” That invites the person to think how he/she could best solve the problem.
Here's another scenario: Suppose that you asked a team member to work on a particular project, and he/she says: “I’d like to take on that project, but I’m afraid I’ll disappoint the others on the team if I don’t finish it.” What questions could you ask to help him/her overcome that fear of failure and gain confidence? You could ask, “What interests you most about this project?” That gets the person to think about the project rather than on their fear. A more challenging question might be something like: “If you couldn’t possibly disappoint anyone, what would you do?” and again, that helps the person focus on steps to take rather than on the fear.
Then there’s the person who is overwhelmed by the project, and says something like this: “There is so much to do. I just don’t know where to begin.” You could ask a question like: “Look at the goal (or end of the project). What ONE step can you take to begin to reach that goal?” This helps the person focus on just getting started, rather than on the whole project. And you could follow up with, “What’s the next step?” and “How excited do you feel about taking these steps?” That helps get the person to think about getting started and completing those critical first steps.
These are just sample questions to give you some ideas about how to structure your good questions. They aren’t scripts to follow. Every situation is unique, so that is all the more reason you need to listen very carefully to what is being said to you, so that you can frame good questions to help your team member. It takes practice to listen intently and then ask good questions to help resolve whatever the problem is. Just keep in mind that good questions are open ended, non-judgmental, and invite a response.
The style of the questions I’ve used as good examples are typical of the questions that coaches use with clients – open ended, non-judgmental, and inviting a response. It takes many hours of practice framing and asking these and other similar questions. I’m not suggesting that you drop everything and take up coaching, however you can learn the basics of framing and asking good questions by learning a bit about a coaching model.
Michael Bungay Stanier has developed 7 essential questions for effective coaching. I’d like to present just three of them to you. Stanier says a focus question is “What’s the Real Challenge for You Here?” If you think about what depth that question can really have, it helps the person dig deeper to uncover what the nature of the real challenge is for whatever problem is being discussed. There are excuses that can become barriers that, in turn, can become serious challenges for the person to overcome.
Another “go deeper” type of question Stanier asks is what he calls the AWE question: “And What Else?” Again it asks the person to dig deeper and uncover what could be hidden agenda that gets in the way of real progress.
And the third example I want to use is what Stanier calls the Lazy Question: “How Can I Help?” I want to take exception to this question. Asking how “I” can help says to me that you are inviting the person to dump the problem on you. It gets “I” in the way, in my opinion. I would ask the question this way: “What help do you need?” or “Who can help you with this?” This keeps the focus on the person with the problem, and invites them to begin to think of solutions. And it keeps YOU from getting into “fixit” mode and inheriting someone else’s problem!
I want to be clear with you – these types of questions take practice. I’m going to read ten questions that I’ve used with others, and they have had good results. You will have to develop your own style of asking such questions, but please feel free to use these for practice as you develop your own series of questions. As I mentioned before, these are examples. The wording may sound a bit stilted, but when you practice them with your own voice and your inflections, they will feel more natural to you. Feel free to change the wording to fit your own style, but always make sure that the questions are open ended, no yes/no questions, that the questions are non-judgmental, and that they invite a response from the person you are asking. Notice that the word, YOU, appears in most questions, for a good reason. Notice, also, that the word “I” does not appear, also for a good reason. Think about it! And then, stay out of the way and LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN to what the other person is telling you.
Here are ten questions. As I read them to you, listen and ask yourself how you would feel answering them, and then how you would feel asking them. Just listen for now – I’ll include these on the transcript so you can look at them and practice them on your own. Here goes:
1. If you could do only one thing this week, what would it be?
2. How can you word this goal using positive language?
3. What will likely happen if nothing is done about this?
4. Whose permission do you need to achieve that goal?
5. What is the biggest challenge you are facing right now?
6. What is one positive lesson you can learn from this?
7. How do you want to be held accountable for this?
8. What is one thing you do really well?
9. What’s stopping you from taking that first step?
10. What’s one way you could have more fun doing this?
And, a little something extra: And What Else?
Put your QUESTION POWER to work for you. I can assure you that you won’t regret it. With questions, of course, you get answers, so you’ll need to sharpen your listening skills as well.
I’ll include another 10 sample questions with these 10 on the transcript of this podcast, so you can print them out, if you wish, and practice with them. Good luck, my friend, and good listening!
On our next episode, we’ll talk about what happens when there are Bumps in the Road. We all have them, and rather than let those bumps define you and defeat you, we’ll talk about some ways to put your shock absorbers to good use. Until then, stay safe and well, my friend, and ask good questions!
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Sample Questions for Practice
1. What’s the most important goal you (or your team) must accomplish in the next 12 months?
2. How can you break down that big goal into smaller chunks?
3. How can you word this goal using positive language?
4. What is the biggest challenge you are facing now?
5. What would you do if you were guaranteed to succeed?
6. What is working well for you at the moment?
7. If you could do only one thing this week, what would it be?
8. What is one thing you do (or your team does) really well?
9. On a scale of 1 to 10, how committed are you to reaching that goal?
10. Who can help you solve that problem?
11. What will likely happen if nothing is done about this?
12. What is one positive lesson you can learn from this?
13. What in this situation can you find to be grateful for?
14. .How do you (or your team) want to be held accountable for this?
15. If you had 50% more confidence, what would you be doing differently?
16. What’s one way you (your team) could have more fun doing this project?
17. Whose permission do you need to achieve that goal?
18. If you weren’t holding anything back, what would you be doing?
19. What’s stopping you (your team) from taking that first step?
20. Which of your strengths will you call upon to help you solve that problem?
And an extra: And What Else?