Day 25 Connection Challenge: Ask a Naive Question

Toddlers ask their parents an average of 100 questions a day. But by adulthood, we have nearly stopped asking questions altogether. In school and work, we are often rewarded for having the answer, but actually questions not only increase creativity and innovation, they improve relationships. Try it. Ask a naïve question today. #becurious #connectionchallenge

Day 13 Connection Challenge: Don’t Jump to Solutions

In business we are often rewarded for taking decisive action. But when we keep our minds open slightly longer and ask questions to learn more, we often find we come up with better solutions. Try to pause before deciding today. #beinclusive #becurious #connectionchallenge

Day 1 Connection Challenge: Ask More Questions

Do you think you ask a lot of questions? Try doubling the number of questions you ask today. Practice asking open questions from a position of curiosity and then listen intently to the answers. #becurious #bepresent #connectionchallenge

Join the 30-day Connection Challenge: www.be-leadership.com/30days

What is Your Question?

How many questions do you ask in a day?

Questions are the foundation of conversation. Most of us ask them without even thinking about it; they are a fundamental part of human connection. Without them, there is monologue, an endless stream of thoughts. Or, alternatively, there is silence.

In John Green’s novel Paper Towns, the main character Quentin says:

“The thing about Margo Roth Spiegelman is that really all I could ever do was let her talk, and then when she stopped talking encourage her to go on, due to the facts that 1. I was incontestably in love with her, and 2. She was absolutely unprecedented in every way, and 3. She never really asked me any question so the only way to avoid silence was to keep her talking.”

Questions are essential, not only in our personal relationships but also in the work environment. As a sales leader, asking questions is a fundamental part of solution selling, or understanding the customer’s needs before promoting a specific product. As a people manager, asking questions engages a team, helps to increase creativity and innovation, and helps to ensure there are no misunderstandings. Questions help leaders deal with ambiguity and work toward clarity. They help individuals thrive in times of change. When we engage with customers, questions help to ensure what we are offering, building or creating meets an existing need.

What is interesting, however, is that despite all of these relatively obvious benefits, leaders today are not really encouraged to question. At a certain point in our careers, we are rewarded for having solutions and sharing those solutions through “vision” and “strategy.” Leaders are expected to be experts. Questions, which have so much value, can be seen as a sign of weakness. And, as a result of this, we forget the art of questioning.

In today’s social climate, where dialogue and conversation are vital and expected, this needs to change. Questions can help us solve problems, think through issues, and get to solutions. And maybe most importantly, they are what make us social. We need leaders who start every engagement with a question, who are willing to ask why. And who see that asking these questions will help move the organization forward.

Therefore, my question for you today is this:

What is your highest priority and what question can you ask others to move this priority forward?

Finding the Underlying Problem

How often are we asking the wrong questions? We ask questions to achieve greater understanding, more insight, better results. We ask questions to solve problems. But what if the problems we are trying to solve are the wrong ones? What if the real problems are sitting buried under the surface?

If we don’t identify the right problem, will we ask the right questions? Or will we focus on the wrong ones?

Scott Dannemiller, in the Huffington Post, says that as parents, we focus 100% of our energy asking the wrong question. As modern parents we fill our children’s social schedules with piano and Chinese and hockey. We pressure our children to practice; we put them in extra lessons and fill their extra-curricular lives. And the question he says we’re asking is:

“What might we miss if we don’t take advantage of these opportunities?”

 Dannemiller claims that fear is driving us to try to solve the wrong problem. Instead of constantly pushing for more and better, we should slow down, think about what we really want for our children and ask new questions, which consider unintended consequences and underlying motivations. Questions like “What do we really want for our children?” and “What do our children miss out on if we push them this way?”

 This challenge isn’t one only faced by parents. We face this in business and in other aspects of personal life. We spend six months – or two years – in meetings discussing a challenge at work, only to find that we haven’t made progress because we’re focused on the wrong thing. We push and push ourselves to improve our work performance, only to realize that a different role is much more fulfilling. Or we stay in a bad relationship and keep asking ourselves what else we can do to make things better, only to realize the problem is that it’s not a relationship we should fix. Once we find the right problem, we ask better questions, and we get to solutions.

If you feel stuck, and you’re not making progress on something – be it your child’s violin lessons or your team’s performance – go back to the questions you are asking and the problem you are trying to solve. If you are asking yourself “Why won’t she practice?” consider asking new questions, such as:

  • Why must she practice?
  • What are the consequences if she doesn’t practice?
  • What are the consequences if I force her to do this every day?
  • What am I trying to achieve with this?
  • Why is she resisting?
  • What else might she be doing during this practice time?
  • Why do I care so much about this?
  • What are my motivations?

If you are asking yourself why your team isn’t meeting one of its targets, consider the same process. Move from the questions you have been asking and the solutions you have been trying and go back to a broader set of questions to try to identify the root cause. Taking these steps will help you to move forward.

Be Interested, Not Interesting

Let’s face it, we all like to hear our own voices. From quite a young age, we are taught to be experts. We learn how to tell stories, give advice, make decisions, give presentations. This starts in school and is reinforced as we join the workplace and become leaders. But how much time is spent learning how to question? How to really listen?

Real conversation is bi-directional. The very best way to engage others in conversation is to really be interested- which involves really listening to what is being said and then asking questions. Here are just a few ideas for improving your listening and questioning skills:

1) Don’t try to multi-task: We live in a world of distractions. But to really listen, we need to put away all the distractions, put our phones away, turn off the voices in our heads reminding us of the 200 other tasks we have to complete before the end of the day, and really hear what the other person is saying to us.

2) Take notes: Turns out that when you doodled in your notebook margins during class as a teenager, it probably was helping you listen more carefully to your history teacher. Recent research shows that writing things down, even doodling, can help you concentrate.

3) Listen to understand, not reply: When we listen, we often are trying to think of the next clever question we can ask. Instead, we should focus on really understanding what is being said. If we do this, the best questions will come naturally.

4) Repeat back: We can both show the person who’s speaking that we’re listening, and ensure we’re on the right page, but paraphrasing what is being said to us. Often this repetition not only helps us as a listener, it helps the speaker become even clearer on what he or she is communicating.

5) Listen for intent: Sometimes people don’t say what they mean. This might be because they haven’t sorted it out themselves yet, but this can also be because they aren’t yet comfortable articulating it. If you really listen deeply, not only to the specific words being used, but also the body language and the tone, you can understand more.

Be interested, not interesting. Ironically, the less we talk about ourselves and listen to others, the more interesting people think we are.