First a quote: “The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.” – Claude Levi-Strauss
I’ll begin this week’s edition of MMM with a bold opinion… here it is: “Most of us are not very good at asking thoughtful questions. We either don’t ask enough questions, or the questions we ask are poorly designed, unfocused, self-serving, shallow, leading, misleading or not questions at all.”
Of all the communication tools and techniques available to leaders, questions are the most under-utilized, and sometimes even misused, in our approach to increased mutual understanding, appreciation, motivation and inspiration. A truly thoughtful question can change the direction of a conversation, an argument, a meeting, a relationship, a person’s career, or the future of a business.
Claude Levi-Strauss challenges us to not just give right answers as leaders, but to ask better, more meaningful questions. For example, in climbing the “ladder of success” we might inquire as to our progress up that ladder. However, asking if the ladder we’re climbing is leaning on the “right wall” is a much different, and perhaps more meaningful question. Driving 65 MPH on I-80 west towards San Francisco from Des Moines, Iowa may feel like really good progress… unless of course, your destination is New York City. “Are we making progress?” and, “Are we going in the right direction?” are two very different questions.
We sometimes ask questions, which upon reflection, aren’t questions at all; sometimes we dress up an opinion in a costume and present that opinion as a question. For instance, “Don’t you think people are really tired of modern-day politics?” It is possible the question’s author was seeking someone else’s opinion… but I’m quite doubtful. I submit this is a really a statement, disguised as a question.
How about accusatory questions? “Aren’t you the one who said you could handle this job?” Or, “Weren’t you the one who promised to clean up the yard if we got you a dog?”
Or, what seems to be the favorite for many lawyers… the setup question: “Is it fair to say that a good manager sets a good example for his or her people?” Followed by, “Do you think your frequent tardiness is setting a good example for your team?”
One of my mentors once taught me, a leader learns nothing new when he/she is speaking. When we’re talking, we’re sharing what we already know or believe to be true. Only by asking questions, and listening to the answers, are we able to learn, to grow, to gather new insights, differing perspectives and garner new wisdom for a changing and challenging world.
Imagine the dialogue we might stimulate if we had the courage to ask better questions:
• What is impossible to do today, but if it could be done, would rock our competitor’s world?
• What is one thing I could do differently, or better, as a leader?
• What is one thing we could change to have better, more productive meetings?
• Is there anything I do that is bothering you or, getting in the way of our relationship?
• How do you think I could be a better: friend, son, neighbor, team member, manager?
• Are we serving the right customers, or, how do you expect our customer’s needs to change in the next 5 years?
• What is your view of this difficult situation?
• What is one thing we could do differently, or better, as a leadership team?
• In what ways could I be a better, more loving husband or father?
• What is the best use of our time in this meeting?
Here is your “leadership development assignment” for this week: Ask two people, or groups, at least two meaningful questions you don’t already know the answers to. That’s it for this week, simple enough.
And now, my favorite weekly question: “How will you lead differently, or better, this week?”
Have a great week!!
“Expanding Your Capacity for Success”
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