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Hosting Conversations about Questions that Matter

[reprinted from the Future of Work...unlimited blog, January 19, 2015]

My recent focus on conversations at work was inspired by this statement from Alan Webber, the founder of Fast Company magazine, in a Harvard Business Review article he wrote way back in 1993:  

… the manager’s job is to create an environment that allows knowledge workers to learn – from their own experience, from each other, and from customers, suppliers, and business partners. The chief management tool that makes that learning happen is conversation. [emphasis added]

Organizational leaders at all levels have an incredible opportunity – and an equally incredible responsibility – to generate meaningful conversations. What they do and say on a daily basis affects the lives and the careers of everyone they come in contact with, to say nothing of the impact those conversations have on an organization’s performance and its ultimate success or failure in the marketplace.

I’ve also become convinced that great conversations start with thoughtful questions. A question signals your interest in learning – your openness to new information and new ideas.

In fact, I believe that asking the right kinds of questions is one of the most important leadership skills I can think of. And it’s not only what questions you ask, it’s how you ask them.

Remember that your role – and your goal – as a conversation leader is to draw out and blend the ideas, insights, and experiences of everyone involved in the conversation. By far the most effective way of achieving that goal is to ask questions that encourage participants to share those insights and ideas, and to respond to their colleagues thoughtfully and respectfully.

There are two basic types of questions: closed-ended and open-ended. Each type has its place in conversations. But they have very different consequences.

A closed-ended question asks for a specific bit of information; it can be answered with a Yes or a No, or with a specific piece of information. Yes/No questions are usually requests for information, such as:

  • “Did you finish that report on last month’s budget deficit?”
  • “Have you met the new Regional Sales Director?”
  • “Have you seen our competitor’s new ad campaign?”

Some closed-ended questions are not Yes/No in nature, but they are equally focused on a specific bit of information:

  • “What time are you meeting with Bob tomorrow?”
  • “How much did the XYZ widget sales grow over the last six months?”
  • “How far is Grand Forks from Omaha?”

Closed-ended questions do not typically invite further discussion; they signal a desire for information, not a conversation. In fact, all too often they are used, either intentionally or unintentionally, to shut down a conversation (or an individual participant).

And in the worst case, closed questions are accompanied by a tone of voice that conveys sarcasm, arrogance, or an emotional message like “I already know the answer to my question; I want to be sure you do too.” Consider questions like these (and imagine you are hearing that know-it-all tone of voice too):

  • “Did you see the way Bob sneered when he told Jane to get her act together?”
  • “Do you really believe our sales are going to go up by 25% in the next two months?”
  • “Do you really think you are the most qualified software engineer in the company?”

In fact, when used this way, a question isn’t really a request for information at all; it’s a statement (and usually a negative one at that) masquerading as a question.

In contrast, while open-ended questions also seek information, there is no presumption of a right answer. An open-ended question asks the responder to offer an idea, a hypothesis, or even a guess about the topic, or it requests more detail about something that has already been mentioned.

For instance, if someone has just suggested that the company open a new office in downtown Boise, Idaho, you could respond by saying something like “Why would we want to do that?” But that kind of question isn’t likely to expand the conversation because it’s so obviously a challenge. The unspoken message is something like “You don’t know what you are talking about.”

A more genuine, supportive way of following up on the suggestion about opening that office in Boise might be to say something like: “What benefits do you see that producing?” That’s an open-ended question in that there are many possible answers (some of which may actually be interesting and new for you).

Open-ended questions that are asked with a sincere interest in the answer serve to:

  • express respect for the other person (you are presuming that he/she has more useful information);
  • offer an opportunity for the other person to add more information, thereby enhancing the conversation;
  • help the other participants explore the topic more deeply, and even generate innovative insights;
  • demonstrate your interest in the topic;
  • convey your desire to keep the conversation going; and
  • stimulate more questions from other participants.

What is your favorite question for launching a conversation that energizes the participants and produces meaningful learning?

Contact me for a free consultation about how you can orchestrate creative corporate conversations that produce breakthrough organizational performance.


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