Healthy Leaders


Great Answers or Great Questions?

Adrian PeiAdrian Pei

Four questions I love to ask, and three unexpected benefits that come with them. 

According to a well-known story, Nobel Prize winner Isadore Rabi shares how his mother unknowingly taught him to be a scientist.  He explains, “Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’  But my mother used to ask, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’  That made the difference.  Asking good questions made me a scientist.”

Journalist Diane Sawyer once marveled at this story, remarking at the beauty of educating children by letting them know we’re excited by their questions, not by our answers and whether they can repeat our answers.

Think about that for another second!  How often do we teach by dispensing information, and then we measure success by how well others can repeat that information later?  It happens all the time, in my experience.

During this leadership blog series, we’ve been exploring the power of becoming a great listener.  In the last post, we discussed how listening allows us to observe more.  In this post, we’re focusing on how:

Listening helps us to understand deeply.

Practically speaking: Great listeners ask great questions.  And the more good questions we ask, the deeper we’re able to understand people and situations.

This should not be a huge revelation.  From ancient times, philosophers and educators have used questions in their forums for learning: from Jewish yeshivas to the Socratic method.  Still, it takes patience and discipline to ask a question, instead of jumping straight to a conclusion or judgment.  If we’re driven by our anxiety to find a solution or to move on from a conversation or meeting, it will be near impossible for us to maintain the level of curiosity needed to truly understand a person or situation.

A co-worker of mine recently conducted an interview using the five “whys?” method.  She asked a colleague to name something they wanted, whether a house, new computer, or extended vacation.  Then she asked, “Why do you want this?”

Let’s say the person responded, “I want a vacation because I really need a break.”

We could stop there.  Or we could ask again, “Why do you really need a break?”

“Because I’ve been so stressed lately, at work and at home.”

Again, we could stop.  Or ask, “Why do you think you’ve been stressed at work?  How about at home?”

With each level, you can see that we’re digging more deeply below the surface, and coming to a better understanding of a person and situation.  And this can happen even with the most basic form of question: one simple word, “Why?”

Obviously, the questions can be more nuanced and phrased in a way that connects (and doesn’t annoy).  But the principle is that asking questions helps us dig below the surface, and if we don’t ask questions, we often stay at more superficial levels of understanding.  Great leaders don’t stay at the surface, but are able to “dig” to uncover real barriers, desires, and needs – and then guide the people they’re leading forward.

So what are some simple questions we can ask in a variety of situations?  Here are four of my favorites:

  1. What is your goal, and why is it important to you? Why?
  2. What steps are needed to achieve this goal, and what will that require of you?
  3. What would be a successful result of your conversation or meeting?
  4. What two action points do you need to execute now, and how will you ensure you get them done?

Finally, here are three huge benefits of asking good questions:

We don’t have to prove ourselves by dispensing all the answers.  By asking questions and listening, we’re letting others do the thinking, which usually creates ownership and better results in the long run anyway.

The less we talk, but ask good questions, it will intrigue people — people will want to know what we’re thinking!  Then when we do speak, our words will carry more weight than if we were constantly battling others to get our two cents in.

Rote (repeating something we’ve heard) is one of the lowest forms of intelligence.  Then on a higher level, there’s dispensing knowledge or wisdom.  But it requires even more intelligence to consider what might be a good question to draw something out of another person.  We don’t just have to think about the content of what we’re sharing, but about who we’re talking to, and how they might receive it, and whether or not that will be effective.

Average public speakers don’t adapt to their audience, but repeat the same message and bore them to death.  Great public speakers think about the people they’re addressing, what their realities and needs are, and then ask pertinent questions to cultivate engagement and ownership.  Asking a good question requires thinking at least a couple of steps ahead, and a couple of levels deeper.  If we learn to ask questions, we’ll become smarter and more effective!

So try asking more questions this week, whether from the list of four questions above, or simply asking “Why?” a couple of times.  And if you’re looking for a place to practice this, try it during your next visit to the dentist.  After all, your mouth will be pried open and you won’t be able to speak, even when you want to.  Use it as a chance to develop some self-restraint, and ask some good questions!

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Adrian Pei