Questioning skills distinguish good leaders from great ones. Choose your
method wisely, says Dr David Steinberg
Pause for a moment and think about the number of questions you ask each day. Whether you’re a managing director or board member, you ask a lot of questions and often in high-stakes situations.
Now think about how you learned to ask questions. Most people draw a blank. Questioning skills are typically learned on the job rather than formally in a classroom – a hit or miss proposition at best.
The reasons why we ask questions in the workplace are as varied as the people we engage with. Our method of questioning should reflect the world around us and not be monolithic in design; it should be more of an adaptable framework than a set of ‘Top 10’ prescribed questions that we often see posted on social media sites. Our method should be interdisciplinary, combining principles from the arts and sciences to reflect the wide range of business professionals who rely on their questioning skills. It should win the hearts and minds of others, not just their minds.
If you have professional sales experience, the chances are high that your sales training included a questioning module. The problem is that all sales-related questioning methods have one aim: to close deals.
One popular method stresses building relationships, understanding roles and influencers, and building a consensus for the sale. Another widely adopted method preaches that the best salespeople aren’t relationship builders at all; they provide their prospective customers with deep insights about their business through teaching and reframing. While the battle of the sales best-sellers rages on, what happens if you want to develop your questioning skills and you’re in marketing, finance, account management, IT, legal, supply chain, human resources and other specialisations?
Questioning skills are particularly important for senior leaders. Michael Campbell, former chairman, CEO and president of Arch Chemicals, notes that while not all board members need to have industry-specific experience, they all should have the courage to ask difficult questions in a productive manner. At the same time, Dev Patnaik at Stanford University argues that CEOs should be the ‘chief question-asker’ in their companies, but as he notes, the CEO has risen to the top not because they have the questions, but because they have the answers.
We humans tend to mimic what we see and hear. Journalists often play the role of prosecutor and cross-examine, rather than interview, public figures using shock-and-awe techniques. The Twitter-sphere lights up with people taking sides and posting memes, yet just how much new information have we learned from an explosive engagement consisting mainly of yes/no questions followed by scripted responses? Not much.
Make no mistake: The journalist’s mandate is indeed to hold public officials accountable for their actions. However, one can hold someone accountable without prosecuting them. Gaining deep insights requires an assertive but collaborative touch, one designed to help the person open up rather than shut down or rely on talking points.
Holding people accountable is also one of the mandates of business leaders, but without the added burden of having to secure a sound bite.
Masterful questioning begins with adopting a mindset that builds trust in others, not walls. It avoids the bad habits of questioning, particularly a heavy reliance on personal or organisational bias or statements that masquerade as questions. It adheres to the principles of crafting compelling questions and sequences, such as using comparative structures and embedding the person’s own contradictions, not yours.
Masterful questioning relies as much on preparation as it does on improvisation. Although we prepare questions ahead of time, when we’re offered an insight, we need to set our list of questions aside for the moment, draw on our training, and learn more.
A child’s first words typically include ‘why’. But this does not mean that we all grow up with advanced questioning skills. We can nurture our innate curiosity and become even better leaders by investing in some question time.
Dr David Steinberg is principal at Reykjavik Sky Consulting and a leading authority on asking questions. He conducts career and research skills masterclasses at several UK universities including Edinburgh University, Heriot-Watt University, and Strathclyde Business School. He is a tutor for IoD Scotland