A lot of my coaching clients want to figure out how to be heard, stand out or express their opinions. They think to do this they have to have the answers, that pearl of wisdom they can drop into the meeting that solves everything.
I’d suggest that asking the right questions, the ones that provoke that collective “good question…” is a better way to gain attention and build alliances.
However, not just any question will do. People often throw out a question to fill space. I was having coffee with a friend and he asked me what I was doing later. I said I was getting my haircut. He made a comment that it wasn’t too long and then he asked me, “So, are you going to get your haircut?”
You’ll recognise the feeling this kind of question provokes. It’s either a snarky “Yes, I just said that” or a defensive “Well, I booked it weeks ago…” Either way, you don’t feel very charitable toward the person doing the asking.
The flip side of that is asking a great question, one that’s clever and gets you noticed. So what makes a great question, one that the listeners respect and even admire you for?
4 goals for good questions
There are several things a really good question can accomplish-
It doesn’t make the listener defensive
It can move the conversation on
It can move the conversation in the direction you’d like it to go
It can prompt people to shift into thinking mode
1. Don’t make them defensive – no judgement or providing the answer
The first goal, trying not to make your listener defensive, is a big hurdle and if you don’t clear it the other three won’t happen. If you ask your question with genuine curiosity, everyone responds well. If you let your judgmental-self shine through, you’re defeated.
It’s easy to be judgemental in a question- “You really think we should do that?” Of course the person is going to dig in their heels and defend their opinion. My guess is they’ll also stop listening to you because they’ve concluded you aren’t supportive and it’s best to shut you up.
That same question asked with curiosity would sound more like- “What are you hoping we can accomplish if we do that?” Try to stay neutral and not let any bias show in your tone.
A negative response can also occur when you imply the answer as you ask the question- “So when will you call him, right now?” The listener is clear that you want it done immediately. If it isn’t their top priority they will either lie to you and say “Sure” with no intention of doing it or launch into all the reasons they can’t do it right now.
A better question that creates the same urgency is “How quickly do you think you can call him?”
If you can keep the person from feeling defensive, their fight or flight mechanism won’t kick in. If they don’t get a jolt of adrenalin from your question, they are less likely to say they have to dash (flight) or argue the point (fight).
As an aside, questions that start with “Why” often make people defensive. Try phrasing your question so it starts with What, How, When or Who and you’ll get a more thoughtful answer.
2. Moving the conversation on
How often have you sat in a meeting thinking it was going in circles with people repeating and exchanging the same information? Sometimes it feels like these meetings consume years of your life.
When you spot this whirling, think of a question that will move the group on to the next subject. David Hoffeld explains in his Fast Company post that your brain is hijacked when someone asks a question. You can’t stop your brain from swerving towards that question and trying to answer it. If you are the one asking the question, you’ve just moved the collective group of meeting brains on to that next area you want to consider.
3. Tailoring your question toward the answer you want
You can move the subject on with a question and you can also use one to influence things in a specific way. This is an effective way to plant the seeds of the result you want and still seem collaborative.
First you have to figure out what YOU want to achieve. For example, let’s say there is some marketing budget available and everyone is discussing a typical poster campaign. You think a digital film would cost the same and be a lot more effective. Now you need to hijack their brains, without making them defensive, and move them in your direction. That’s a lot to accomplish with a question.
Start by affirming their discussion “I can see the advantages in doing a poster for what we want to achieve.” Affirming this keeps people from digging in their heels and defending their option.
Then ask a targeted question “What do we think the advantages would be of using an online film?” You’ve focused on the advantages of that media, so that’s what people will try to answer.
You’re not asking if this a better option, just what the advantages are in using it. Once you’ve got them exploring the advantages, you can add your own rationale on how you think the film might be more effective.
If you’d launched in with that pearl of wisdom, “I think digital content would be more effective,” you can bet there would be a debate about whether you are right. By asking it as a question, you’ve let the group explore this option and take some ownership over moving toward that solution.
4. Prompt people to take time to think
Myers Briggs research on preferences tells us that external thinkers like to discuss something new immediately, and if they come to a quick consensus they may make a decision.
Internal thinkers prefer a depth of thinking, they want to consider several possibilities and mentally take each to its conclusion before they commit to a decision.
Asking the questions that you’d like to understand before you make a decision is a great way to move people from talking to thinking. Sometimes we don’t have enough information; you might need to know costs, availability or timing before a good decision can be made.
Stating that you can’t make that decision yet, could make you sound like you’re sitting on the fence. However, expressing the questions that are zipping around in your head will get you kudos and some respect.
This is as simple as saying “Before we decide, do we know how this will impact the budget?” or “Do we know if the people we need to be there will be available?”
Your questions are pushing the whole group into taking a moment to think and gather information. You might feel hesitant to do this, to be the one to slow things down, but that is exactly what’s needed when a vocal group is leaping ahead too quickly.
Your strongest card, once you’ve asked your question, is to suggest the next steps – “Let’s find out what the costs will be and discuss this again tomorrow.” This helps everyone know what’s expected and it makes you appear in control.
Sometimes you aren’t the person in a meeting with the most seniority, most knowledge or expertise. It can make you wonder what value you are adding by being there. Give yourself a goal of asking at least one question that moves things on or provokes an interesting discussion. You’ll get noticed and there will be some grateful people who are delighted you asked.