Editorial note: This article appeared in Forbes on March 2nd, 2017
We live in a complicated and fast-paced world. A common pitfall of this demanding reality is the tendency for leaders to become overwhelmed and operate on unfounded assumptions. While this might seem like a well-intentioned decision, the danger of operating on assumptions is that they may not be entirely correct — and in some cases, may be completely wrong.
Basing one’s course of action on assumptions can damage relationships and impact business negatively. The problem is, many leaders aren’t entirely aware of when and where unfounded assumptions guide their reactions and decision-making.
When I coach business leaders, we work on raising self-awareness by asking, “What’s my assumption?” Then, we build on this process of self-examination by asking powerful questions on what is happening and what the best strategies are to move forward.
There are many ways to ask questions. The following three tips help create a positive impact in communication.
Ask open-ended questions to allow room for exploration.
“Do you want chocolate ice cream or strawberry?” This is an example of a close-ended question when you want to get a quick answer from a 3-year-old. “What kind of dessert would you like to have?” is an open-ended question that allows more exploration and expression.
We can apply this strategy to the workplace. For example, imagine that your direct report is explaining why he can’t make a project deadline. You might want to ask, “What is the best way to proceed from here?” before you jump into problem-solving mode. When the person can come up with their own solution, he/she will be more likely to deliver on time and feel more supported and empowered in the interaction.
Ask questions that reflect your listening and understanding of another’s perspective.
If you have no intention to listen to the person you are talking to, don’t bother to ask questions. Not only does it waste your time, but it is also apparent to the other person in the conversation and can lead to feelings of resentment. That’s not a beneficial experience to anyone involved.
A good strategy for active listening is repetition and permission. For example, when you hear your direct report make a suggestion on how to proceed in a challenging situation, repeat what you heard to make sure you understand his/her perspective. From there, ask directly if they are open to hearing your own suggestions. This interaction will be a positive experience that helps move the project forward to everyone’s satisfaction.
Ask questions with curiosity and authenticity.
When you have an agenda, the question you ask will be tainted by that agenda. Imagine you’re on a date. If you ask, “Do you really want to order dinner right now?” that question implies that ordering dinner is not preferred by you. Your date might perceive this and feel manipulated by the question.
In the workplace, a curious question you can ask your direct report might be, “What lesson have you learned from this project?” This opens up the possibility of a new lesson for both of you, and it could benefit the process of future projects.
Since human beings are naturally inclined to give advice, especially leaders who are assertive and expressive, learning to ask powerful questions is a skill that must be developed. We must train ourselves to understand that how we frame questions affects the information we receive.
As a leader, when you master the skill of asking powerful questions, you are setting an example for your whole team. Through asking powerful questions, you are supporting your people’s capacity for critical thought and increasing their value as team contributors. Teamwork and group cohesion will emerge and thrive in this positive atmosphere. When people learn to ask each other powerful questions, everyone gets a chance to feel supported, valued and empowered. Your business will grow accordingly.