Good Leadership: The Art of Asking Questions

I am a questioner. I ask questions. I don’t mean the type that always express skepticism–that I don’t believe what someone is saying–and that put people on the defensive. Rather, I ask questions to find out what someone is thinking. I ask questions to get them to think, to help them discover something they already know, to encourage them to contribute to the discussion, or for me to inquire more deeply into what they are saying.

Over the years, I’ve tried to get better at asking questions. I’ve tried to learn how to engage people through asking questions. I’ve tried to figure out how to make people feel as comfortable as possible when answering my questions, and not to fear the “I don’t know the answer and I’ll feel stupid” syndrome. I’ve tried to assure them that I value their answers to my questions and that I genuinely want to know what they know.

Whether when working with students or colleagues, I do my best to demonstrate openness to what they have to say and the ideas they have to share through asking questions. I still make mistakes at this, but my commitment is to really understand what the “art” of asking questions is all about.

I also learned about asking questions from my father who was a pastor. Understandably, at times, folks in his congregations and from the community would come to him for advice. Typically they would ask, “What should I do? What do you think the Bible says about this? Is this right or wrong?” More often than not, his first reply to their questions was, “What do you think?” before offering any “righteous” response of his own and just telling them what to do or how to think.

So how can we, especially as leaders, increase our ability to ask good questions and, in doing so, become better leaders. Here are a few basic ideas for you to consider:

  • Be humble. Get rid of your ego. Admit to yourself and others that you don’t know everything and that you need the input of others to make the best decision.
  • Wait for a response. Give those to whom you are asking questions time to reflect and consider what to say. We’re way too quick to jump in and begin talking after we ask a question. Studies of teachers on this topic of “wait time” find that the average pause between asking a question and then chiming in is less than 2 seconds. Sounds crazy but it’s true–2 seconds. Be patient and get comfortable with silence.
  • Develop a sense of curiosity. Ask questions to satisfy your desire to “know” and discover new information from others.
  • Be present when you ask questions. Give your full attention. Let them know you are really listening to what they have to say by your body language. Lean in a little, have that “interested” look in your face, nod and affirm when they respond. Put your cell phone down. Come out from behind the desk. All of these things let them know that what they have to say is important and you want to hear it.
  • Ask open-ended questions such as: “What about…?; Have you every thought of…?; Tell me what you mean by…?; How do you feel…?”; What would happen if…?,” etc.

I conclude with a few final thoughts.

Asking questions doesn’t make you appear less competent, nor is it an abrogation of your responsibility to make decisions.

Asking others for their input makes them feel part of the process, feel more engaged, and likely to have greater ownership of a decision. It helps to fulfill the desire “to be heard.”

All of this can create and maintain trustworthiness in you and those with whom you work. It can also increase the likeliness that they will be more open to feedback from you and that you are open to feedback from them.

Here’s a great quote about this subject from Peter Drucker:

 “My greatest strength is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”

Great advice, Peter.

Take care and stay safe.

Jim Dittmar

professional pic single 4.25.17

James Dittmar is the Founder, President, and CEO of the 3Rivers Leadership Institute, through which he creates and delivers training and development that is transformational.  Prior to this Jim founded the award-winning Geneva College M.S. in Organizational Leadership Program and served as Chair of the Department of Leadership Studies and Director of the M.S. in Organizational Leadership Program until 2015. Should you have any questions, comments or feedback, please contact him at jimdittmar@jimdittmar.com.


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