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What's In A Question?

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

What’s in a question? It turns out quite a lot. The amount of research on the impact of questions is surprising at first glance. A Google search of ‘the power of questions’ yields 5-billion+ results including many books, research by Harvard Business Review, articles by Forbes and several Ted Talks to name just a few.

This is a topic near and dear to me. I’ve spent a good amount of my career working with organizations to help them grow brands by asking questions of brand-builders and their consumers. I’ve asked questions about a whack of different things: peanut butter, jam and bread preferences, leisure and business travel needs, telco provider perceptions, hopes and dreams for new homes, favourite coffee shops, indigestion, oral care routines, bricks & mortar and online shopping habits. The list goes on and on and what may seem like banal and superficial topics on the surface, actually offer a fascinating glimpse into human nature and how people open up when asked good questions.

This lesson has broad application. In fact, research shows that questions are a powerful leadership tool. Here’s just some of the evidence:

From Harvard Business Review, The Surprising Power of Questions by Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie John: in this article Wood Brooks and John present the case for executives asking more questions. They argue that questioning is undervalued and that most of us do not ask nearly enough of them or ask them in the best way. It’s worth reading the article for more depth but here are a few key takeaways from the research:

  • Asking more questions increases likeability

  • Not all questions are equally effective. Follow up questions are special. They signal respect and interest

  • In more tense situations, asking tough questions first yields more information but when the goal is relationship building, start with easier questions and work up to the tougher ones

  • A casual question-asking tone yields more information than a buttoned-down, official one

In a Forbes article by Joseph Folkman, a specialist in behavioural statistics, he documents the results of research conducted with over 2,800 leaders based on 360-degree leadership assessments (for more go here: Great leaders ask and listen). Often, we equate leadership with telling: the ability to have answers at the ready, to focus on one-way directive communication versus two-way dialogue. Folkman’s research debunks this perception. In fact, extraordinary leaders—those at the top 10% of leaders overall -- are equally good at telling, asking the right questions and listening. Being good at any one of those alone does not determine great leadership.

These findings support a humble approach to leadership. They give leaders permission to not have all the answers all the time and empower others to find solutions. Like all interpersonal skills that depend on other human beings for success, mastery is not the goal. Instead, the opportunity is to get better at question-asking. The types of questions you ask, the sequencing of questions, and your tone all play a role in strengthening this muscle.

How have you used questions to unlock opportunities for your organization? We’re listening!

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