How To Use Powerful Questions to Challenge Your People

Sue Stockdale looks at how asking the right questions can change the focus of your employees and your business.

When was the last time that you were asked a great question?   One that really made you stop and think, or that caused you to come up with new ideas or insights. It is likely that it was quite a long time ago, as my experience in day to day business is that powerful questions are rarely asked.  

In Western society the focus is often more on finding the right answer, than asking the right question.

Yet powerful questions can generate new product ideas, or change the focus for a business. 

For example, the question “where can I get a good hamburger on the road?” motivated Ray Kroc to create MacDonald’s, the global fast food chain.  Similarly, when James Watson and Francis Crick considered “what might DNA look like in a 3D form?” this led to the discovery of the double helix which was groundbreaking in the world of science.  

In many organisations, the focus tends to be on problem solving, and sticking with what has gone on before. But by changing the focus to the future, and identifying new ideas and solutions, you can enable others to be creative and generate new ideas. This can bring added value to your business and enable staff to maximize their potential.   Some questions I use regularly with my coaching clients are: 

  1. What needs to happen so that you can…..? 
  2. What if you were in charge, what would you do? 
  3. If you knew you couldn’t fail, what action would you take? 

These questions help someone to reframe their “I can’t” mindset into one of “what’s possible” in order to focus attention on the future rather than the past.  

If you analyse the elements of a question, there are three parts to consider:  

  1. Construction of a question 
  2. Scope of a question
  3. Assumptions behind a question 

Construction 

Questions can either be aimed at opening up possibilities e.g. "what do you expect our sales revenue to be in the next 6 months?" Or a closed question can generate a yes or no response e.g. "Is our sales target £25k?"  Powerful questions that cause reflection and deeper thinking tend to begin with “what”, “how” or “why”.   But be aware that “Why” can provoke a defensive reaction.  So I prefer to change it to begin with “what”. In this case the question “Why were you late with the report?” changes to “what is the reason that you were late with the report?” or even, “tell me Mary, I am wondering what the reason……is etc….” which is a softer approach and more likely to yield a different result.    

Scope 

The scope of a question relates to the boundaries it pertains to. 

If you want your employees to focus on their team, as opposed to the entire company, it needs to clear in the question.    

  1. What if you were in charge of our team, what would be your #1 priority? 
  2. What if you were in charge of the company……..? 
  3. What if you were in charge of the economy…….? 

 

Also, by introducing a hypothetical element, the “what if”, again it can free up thinking and help employees take the perceptual perspective of a third party. I often find that although we all have the capability to think through a problem or issue at work, sometimes we are just lazy and we want someone else to do the thinking for us. That way the responsibility for the outcome remains with the other person and we are not wholly committed to the solution. 

Assumptions 

Nearly every question we ask includes built-in assumptions, and we rarely challenge those assumptions.

For example, “what did we do wrong when we missed the sales target and who is responsible?"  This assumes that the individual(s) made an error and someone is to blame, which is likely to seek a team to hunker down and keep quiet.    Change the question to “what can we learn from the sales results and what can we do differently next quarter?” and there is a different sense of energy around exploring the question within the team.    

In another situation, a company had just won a new contract in Eastern Europe, which meant their company documentation had to be translated into three additional languages.  The Marketing team immediately began to seek quotes from translation companies to do the work, until the Sales Director enquired about what language capability they already had within the company?  By not assuming that the business had to seek external help, they found out that already had the capability within the business, but had just never asked the question before.  So being aware of, and challenging assumptions that others make, can be extremely helpful.  

Points to remember:   

  • Consider what is the purpose of the question you want to ask (Is it to provoke thought, to confirm something, to make you look good, to encourage responsibility etc.?) 

  • Are there any built-in assumptions in the question? 

  • Once you ask a question, if you notice a moment of silence before the person responds, it is likely you have asked a question that has caused them to think 

  • Think about how you frame your question, and if in doubt, begin with “what….?” 

  • Check if the question is taking them towards the future and a solution, or the past and the problem.  

  • Asking powerful question can bring positive results to your business. 

Sue Stockdale is an executive coach and leadership specialist. She inspires small businesses and corporate clients to achieve exceptional performance, using her experience as the first UK Woman to ski to the Magnetic North Pole, and representing Scotland in track and field athletics Sue holds a range of coaching and assessment qualifications along with an MBA in Entrepreneurship and MSc in Quality Management.  As an author Sue has published five books: Secrets of Successful Women Entrepreneurs, the Growth Story, Kickstart your Motivation, Cope with Change at Work and the Personality Workbook.  For more details www.suestockdale.com  

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