Eliciting Excellence

Leadership Finesse: The Art of Asking Questions

Whenever I ask people what they feel the biggest leadership problem is, I always get the same answer.  It’s not lack of integrity, poor decision making, or lack of vision (although that’s #2).  Poor Communication is cited as the number one shortcoming of leaders.  Poor communication is often the cause for unnecessary conflict, improperly done work, and weak, uninspired performance.

One of the causes of poor communication is poor questioning skills.  Questions are excellent tools for clarifying concerns and degrees of comprehension as well as for developing the skills and perspectives of others.  As a leader refines his or her leadership competencies, the art of asking questions must be honed.  Let’s look at how the proper use of questions can be used to clarify, develop and persuade.

Clarify Concerns and Comprehension
Asking questions is the key to ensuring clarity and avoiding misunderstandings.  That’s pretty obvious.  And yet,… I find that many people haven’t taken the time to develop their question-asking skills.  Recently, a client brought up the details of his review in our coaching call.  It wasn’t so much a review as a summary of problems he was having with others.  After talking through these issues through with him, it became evident that there was a recurring theme of ineffective communications – both on his part and on the part of others.  In a couple of instances, he assumed one thing, not thinking that the other person could (and in fact did) assume something different.  In other cases, his words were misconstrued which led to inaccurate conclusions about him and his intentions.

Both situations could have easily been cleared up and altogether avoided by asking a few important questions.  Clarifying someone’s intention can often avoid a confrontation or a missed deadline.  But let’s be honest, the hard part isn’t knowing which question to ask; It’s in knowing when to ask a question.  A key factor in the art of asking questions is to be aware of one’s own feelings.  Mastering the art of asking questions requires an awareness of when you’re assuming something.  When you catch yourself assuming, you need to stop and ask for clarification.  Assuming leads to misunderstandings, miscommunication, and stirs unnecessary emotions.  It takes practice to be mindful of when you are making an assumption, but once you are aware, you’ll ask much better questions and you’ll have the ability to be a much better communicator and a much better leader.

Developing Others and Changing Perspectives
Asking questions also allows you to develop people.  When someone comes to you with a problem or concern, asking the right questions will cause them to “think” and will help them gain new insights into themselves and others.  Asking questions will allow you gain a better understanding of the other person – how they think, how they make decisions, and how they see the world.  It creates the opportunity for you to change their perspectives.  Rather than simply answering their question or pointing them in the right direction, why not ask them what they think should be done?  They may surprise themselves (and you) with their thought-process and you will create the opportunity for you to help them grow.  Additionally, some people see the world in a certain way and find it difficult to see other points of view.  By asking why they go about things in a certain way or see things a certain way, you then have the ability to offer other perspectives and viewpoints.  Since one of the roles of a leader is to develop others, this is an important skill to master.

By asking questions, you not only avoid misunderstandings, but help others to understand themselves and the world more fully.