Meetings are meant to create something together and reach a collective goal that cannot be achieved without the whole group. They are not a platform for a CEO or team leader to do all the talking. Effective leaders know that they must steer meetings, not dominate them, if they want employees to take greater ownership of their ideas, become more involved, and share more freely.
The role of a leader is to leverage the diversity of perspectives and experiences in the room in a positive way and steer the conversation with appropriate questioning. When they’re used well, questions show the other people in the room that the leader is interested in their perspectives. Questions invite team members to give deeper explanations or to explore topics more fully. They also motivate people to join the conversation.
There are many methods of steering a conversation to persuade, influence, and negotiate through questions. Here are five, in particular, that will make your meetings more successful and engaging.
1. Curious questions
Curiosity is often cited as the key to innovation. Experimentation and probing questions are key drivers of problem-solving. Curious questions are a great tool for stimulating innovation, but they’re underrated for their ability to resolve conflicts. When people feel threatened or criticized, becoming defensive is a natural reaction. Curious questioning is a brilliant way to remain offensive and look for data that can be disputed or countered with facts that will move the conversation or situation past the point of conflict.
For example, after a meeting, if you get feedback that someone felt you were hostile or aggressive toward them when they put their point of view across, the natural tendency may be to say, “That’s just the way I am. That’s not what I meant.” Instead, try saying, “I’m curious about that. What about me did you notice that you thought was aggressive or dismissive?”
In a leadership meeting context, you might encourage leaders to use curious questions consciously, especially when conversations are stuck. If the team’s discussion is becoming too narrow or focused on only one aspect of the issue, or perhaps becoming focused on one solution or problem-oriented, you might consciously throw in a statement or question that is linked to the discussion but brings everyone on the right track.
2. Circular questions
There are many occasions where leaders want to ask their employees, “Why did you do x?” or “What made you think y?” Often, though, the employee won’t be able to answer. Perhaps they don’t know what motivated them, they’re reluctant to reveal it, or they’re afraid of punishment or judgment. Circular questions offer the chance for leaders to dig deeper into people’s values, motivations, and drives without seeming threatening.
Take, for instance, the case of John and Preeti, two leaders collaborating on a large construction project. Preeti noticed that the project was increasingly likely to miss milestone deadlines, but she didn’t have concrete information about the workload and timelines. John seems conflict-shy, and Preeti isn’t sure how he will respond to direct questions.
Instead, she opened with a broad question that sounded like small talk and an artful invitation to dialogue. She then picked up on John’s key phrases or words and used them to drill down to another layer of information. Because she first validated what John said, he didn’t feel like he was being interrogated.
Her questions were never confrontational. They instead involved him when she used words such as “we,” “mutual interest,” and “in this together.” By the time they’d reached the end of the meeting, she’d garnered quite a bit of data about the likely cause of delay. More importantly, she’d created an alliance with John.
3. Confirming questions
Confirming questions are used to ensure that you’ve understood what was said or to confirm that data is correct. These are often fairly straightforward questions, such as “Am I right that the projected date for completion is in January?” or “Did we meet the targets for March?” They serve an obvious but important informational purpose.
More than that, though, confirming questions are a key way that leaders can show empathy for other people in the room. A leader’s questions have the power to show that they are listening, that they value others’ expertise, and that they trust the information they are receiving. Know-it-all leaders don’t always seem authoritative. They often seem like they’re disregarding the capacities of the rest of the group.
Confirming questions can ultimately help build trust within a team. Respectful dialogue helps people rally together and collaborate because they feel involved and valued. Confirming questions can pave the way for deeper, more complex questions. Trust is something that leaders must gradually build among their teams so that eventually, members can challenge each other, handle conflict, and hash out goals in a positive way.
4. Clarifying questions
You may know Socrates as a philosopher. Philosophy, by its nature, asks questions that look for meaning and understanding of life. Socratic questioning, then, uses questions to search for meaning and understanding. One of Socrates’ main tools was clarifying questions. These are useful for determining a person’s meaning and intention, exploring ideas, or uncovering rationales.
For instance, if a person in a meeting says something that isn’t fully clear, an effective leader will speak up in order to ask follow-up questions that uncover the true meaning of the statement. If you are prone to ignoring or overlooking unclear ideas or concepts, then you are opening up the possibility for confusion and conflict in the future.
Plus, you won’t be tapping into the true potential of your employees. Perhaps the idea is a truly innovative one, and bringing it to light would really help it flourish. When people have to clarify their ideas, they often learn to explore them more fully.
In leadership, you can also use Socratic questioning to understand a person’s motivation. For example, you may be working on a project with an employee who feels pressured by the workload. Through clarifying questioning, you delve into the employee’s concerns. When you ask what the workload means to them, you discover they are worried about quality being compromised. That’s valuable and actionable information.
5. Challenging or investigative questions
Investigative questioning is a more formal technique and useful in digging into details, looking into gaps in data, facts, evidence, seeing the holes in the picture or specific argumentation, testing hypotheses, eliciting contradictions for resolution, critiquing biases and assumptions, and exploring links between data sets or ideas.
Investigative questioning may be one-sided or linear in form and can feel much like a Q&A. Closed and open questions to explore and confirm ideas are used in tandem typically in structured processes, for example, an investigation into an incident, product/concept pressure-testing, or forward planning an event.
Investigative questioning is useful primarily as a check-and-balance approach to a final decision to ensure all key factors or aspects have been covered before moving forward. In dialogue with people, this approach should be avoided unless served upfront with clear purpose as a formal question-and-answer-type dialogue.
If you’ve ever had that feeling that someone is intense or overstepping boundaries with you in their questions when you meet, it’s possible they are using an investigative approach in the wrong context. This approach is for formal situations and not for day-to-day, trust-building relations. Leaders should be clear about this difference.
Nashater Deu Solheim, PhD, is the author of The Leadership PIN Code: Unlocking the Key to Willing and Winning Relationships.