When I became a coach I had to shift my perspective. When I was an executive, I was accustomed to, and very comfortable with, giving answers to someone else’s questions. I mentored many people who would come to me for advice and I always had a suggestion for their situation. Coaching, on the other hand, is largely about asking the right questions that enable the client to find answers to their own questions.
A number of years ago when I was taking over chairmanship of a non-profit board I met with a very wise man, from whom I was seeking mentoring on the new role. I kept asking him questions and he kept avoiding direct answers. Finally he told me, “Susan, the power is not in the answer. The power is in the question.”
I now see the value in asking powerful questions in many situations, including in our careers. Here are just a few situations where asking a question may be more helpful than answering.
Ask questions when you are:
Seeking Innovation: The recent Harvard Business Review cover article is “Better Brainstorming: Why Questions Matter More than Answers”. https://hbr.org/2018/03/better-brainstorming Whereas seeking answers to a problem can stifle engagement, the author found that reframing the problem into powerful questions produces varied perspectives, more engagement and better ideas.
Gaining Support for your Idea: The first step to selling your idea isn’t about selling. The first step to gaining support is to understand the perspective of the person whose support you want. This is also the first step of any consulting assignment. In the classic Steven Covey book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, one of the key habits is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Managing Emotions at Work: Have you found yourself in a situation where someone delivered a message that you weren’t prepared for? Perhaps it was in a performance review or team meeting. When our emotions are triggered, our response, if not consciously managed, may reflect those emotions. A pause, followed by a non-reactive, calm question can give us time to recover and consider our preferred way forward.
Confronted with a Defensive Employee/ Colleague: If you’ve ever managed people, you’ve likely been in the situation when someone comes into your office making a request. That request may be something you’re not prepared for and/ or it may come loaded with defensiveness. (E.g. “I’ve not received a promotion in x years and I’d like to know why.”) When we’re in a position of authority it’s tempting to jump into answer mode. But we can adapt to a better response if we ask questions for clarification first.
What experiences have you had where asking a question was a more effective strategy than answering the question?