Do you find you are often the person in meetings who asks questions, or is your first instinct to offer an answer?
Change-makers are questioners. They reach out to different people and conduct experiments that help them develop answers to hard challenges.
Thomas Edison was a question-asker who created a culture and environment where the hundreds of people working in his labs were empowered and motivated to search for answers. He encouraged exploration through questions that translated into thousands of experiments.
Albert Einstein has famously been quoted as saying, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask…for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
Asking great questions—well-constructed, driven by the motivation to listen and learn, and posed to thoughtfully chosen audiences—is a high-payoff behavior, especially in times of change. Because the world does not look much as it did a year ago, we must ask questions. If we don’t, we are left with the alternative: making assumptions based on what worked back then and facing reasonable chances of making missteps as a result.
Great questions can open up our capacity to change because they allow us to:
• Draw people in, opening them up to sharing knowledge, ideas, and opinions.
• Affect people’s thinking, expanding their views and willingness to consider alternatives.
• Create pathways, uncovering non-obvious insights, data, and clues that lead us to the next questions and further progress.
Questions are empowering in times of uncertainty, unpredictability, and ambiguity because of their ability to shed light on which paths to pursue.
Here are six recommendations for any leader who wants to make asking questions a superpower.
1. According to Harvard Business School professor and Product Institute CEO Melissa Perri, asking questions is core to what any leader must be doing now to increase their team’s agility, motivation, and operating speed.
2. Avoid what Five to Flow CEO and founder Kate Visconti calls “The ASK Trap,” i.e., when you assume something based on what you see. Instead, ask.
3. Make it easier for people to open up and share. Kate begins conversations with questions that allow others to share who they are as people first, not just as potential sources of answers. Who are they? What is their life context? What do they believe? What are they trying to accomplish? A few minutes invested in this line of conversation dissolves false assumptions and creates more valuable dialogue. That signals that you are truly interested in what others have to say and helps you become a better listener.
3. Experiment with three simple follow-on tactics (below) that can help reveal truths and draw out insights that might otherwise be lost. Break the habit of only asking one question before moving on to what is, in your mind, the next topic.
• Allow for silence. Sometimes saying nothing and just waiting for a few seconds is the best way to open additional space for others to share. Silence can be an invitation.
• Ask for more by continuing beyond the first reply. One of my favorite follow-ons is: “What you just shared is so interesting. Can you tell me more about that?”
• Gently poke at claims. Get to the substance. “How did you figure that out?” and “How did you know that?” are great follow-ons to move past surface comments that may or may not be well substantiated.
4. Go beyond the usual suspects when choosing who to ask. Audience selection will determine what you learn. Aim for diversity of perspective and expertise. Include people representing multiple stakeholder groups. Consider tapping into others who may have related knowledge in a completely different kind of business. In banking, my team explored attitudes related to weight loss and how people manage their health, based on a hunch that there were possible behavior parallels. These turned out to be real, stimulating the team’s creative process. Look to adjacencies for non-obvious connections that could spark completely fresh answers.
5. Frame questions as how, why, what, and what-if. Avoid yes-no questions. My least favorite kind of question? Exposing a user to a new concept and asking them, “Would you buy or use this?” Asking people to project future behavior risks producing false or misleading answers. The better question is: “What did you do when…” seeking to explore situations where, perhaps, the person solved a similar problem and can share their story about what they did, how, and why.
6. Build your question-asking muscle. Here’s a practice that’s easy to implement. Paul Barnett and his team at the innovation consultancy NowWhat hold a one-hour session each week that they call “the Einstein meeting,” in a nod to that great asker of questions. Participants listen and ask questions for the first 55 minutes and then use the last few minutes to land on the question they want to pursue together. While some of the questions may be distinct, they often build on each other and lead to provocative places that improve the quality of their work.
The rule today is change. Asking questions is one of the best habits worth strengthening for any leader intent on finding new directions in a changing environment and who sees challenging what they and others have long taken for granted as critical to directing the change.
What questions are on your mind?
Amy Radin is a director, advisor, and author who helps teams turn ideas and insights into innovation results.