The Power of The Question

When I became a coach, I had to shift my perspective.  As an executive, I was accustomed to (and very comfortable with) giving answers to someone else’s questions.  I mentored many people who came to me for advice and I always had a suggestion for their situation.  Most of us like to demonstrate our knowledge and expertise by answering questions. Coaching, however, was largely about asking the right questions that enable and empower a client to find answers to their own questions.

Several years ago, when I was taking over chairmanship of a non-profit board, I met with a very wise man whom I sought as a mentor for the new role.  I asked endless questions and he kept avoiding direct answers. Finally he told me,

“The power is not in the answer. The power is in the question. Your leadership will be defined by the questions you ask.”

There is value in asking powerful questions in many situations, including leadership roles or in managing our careers.

Ask questions when you are:

Seeking Innovation.  In the Harvard Business Review article “Better Brainstorming:  Why Questions Matter More than Answers” the author found that seeking answers to a problem can stifle engagement, but reframing the problem into powerful questions produces varied perspectives, more engagement and better ideas.

Gathering Support for Your Idea.  The first step to gaining support for your idea 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 for which you were unprepared?  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 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 had someone come into your office to make 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 first ask questions for clarification.

Making a Request for Yourself.  Perhaps you’ve asked for a raise, a promotion or to be on a particular project.  When the answer comes back quickly and negative, too often we accept the decline and move on.  But what if there’s room for negotiation?  Or if the person being asked didn’t have full information?  It’s in our best interest to ask follow up questions to better understand the situation and the perspective of the person to whom you’re making a request.

What experiences have you had where asking a question could have been a more effective strategy than answering the question?

Photo: Hariez Razali/Shutterstock

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Susan Hodge

Susan Hodge

Susan Hodge created Women Leading Together in order to provide one-on-one executive coaching, seminars, workshops, and coaching circles to help career women move forward to create fulfilling professional lives. Visit our website for upcoming programs, articles, and resources to advance your career.


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