“You have not because you ask not” James 4:2.
Here, James is encouraging Christians to persevere in “asking” for what they want. As an executive coach, I believe there is a parallel here to our approach to leading others. It is suggested that the most difficult transition a manager/leader makes is from telling to asking, yet it is one of the most profound. While leaders spend much of their time asking for information, often the skill of asking questions to foster learning, exploration and the exchange of ideas goes untapped. For some, this may come naturally, for others and for a variety of reasons, asking questions can prove difficult.
Why do so many of us fail to leverage the value of questions? One unfortunate reason is the natural progression of education. Questions and inquisitiveness are naturally very much alive in our youth, yet formal education places restrictions on questions asked and the unbridled curiosity that may lead to them in an effort to create structure and “outcomes”. In his book “Questions are the Answer”, Hal Gregerson quotes research by Edwin Susskind conducted in elementary classrooms which indicated that, “on average, an hour of class time featured eighty four questions by the teacher, and just two questions asked by the pupils…... He counted one question per pupil per month.”
Other reasons why questions are infrequently asked may include having a fixed mindset, having a strong ego that is eager to impress and control the direction of conversation, over or under confidence in your own knowledge and the anticipation of the response to the question. The one I find most frequently in my executive coaching practice is related to power and certainty. As leaders elevate, their careers are often defined by the answers and solutions they provide to the challenges and questions raised. As they enter “leadership” there may be an underlying fear that if I don’t have the answer, it could reflect poorly on their perceived competency as a leader, therefore questions take a back seat. In concert with this is the perception that asking questions may create the impression that they are uninformed or uncertain, so better to not say, or ask, anything until they can figure it out or ask in private.
All of these scenarios are unfortunate as they can potentially limit trust and insight necessary to effective leadership. How, then, can leaders overcome these barriers and enhance their effectiveness in asking and leveraging questions? Following are four leadership development considerations to improving this critical skill:
Ask more questions: Seems simple, almost silly to even mention, but if you are not in the habit of asking questions, begin to do so. Asking more questions will foster curiosity, cultivate rapport, enhance your EQ and create insight.
Be “other” focused: In the Dale Carnegie classic “How to win friends and influence people” he advises to “Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.”
Persevere: Hang in there when time permits. Many will disengage when it becomes uncomfortable, but there’s gold in the follow up questions. They signal that you are listening and often elicit deeper, more meaningful responses.
Style matters: Understanding their communication style allows you to adjust your pace, tone and overall approach to engage others as effectively as possible with questions that are responded to rather than defended against.
If your leadership could benefit from improving your ability and effectiveness in asking powerful questions, let me know and I’ll direct you to resources and tools that can contribute to your development or we can have a conversation about how executive coaching can improve this leadership competency and strengthen organizational innovation.