Leading through Inquiry, Part 2: Asking Questions

In last week’s blog post, I encouraged you to ask rather than tell. But what kinds of questions are effective at simultaneously empowering and challenging the members of your team?

First, let’s address the fear behind asking questions. Displaying vulnerability is truly terrifying for many leaders.

You have to make a choice:

  1. Risk appearing fallible by asking questions.
  2. Risk creating a culture where people wait to be told what to do.

Take the first step: Banish any obsolete beliefs about omnipotence, and focus on practicing humility. Ask real questions. Embrace the reality that you depend on your subordinates. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with soliciting their feedback.

Professional pollsters, researchers, therapists and executive coaches have dedicated years to refining their inquiry skills. The rest of us take it for granted that we know how to ask questions. We tend to mimic our role models—usually parents, teachers and bosses—who rely on superficial or social questions that are essentially disguised forms of telling:

  • Why weren’t you at home (in class, at the meeting)?
  • How could you screw this up?
  • When did I ever tell you to do this?
  • What were you thinking?

These seemingly open-ended questions are actually quite controlling. If you want someone to reveal the full story, avoid steering conversations in any given direction. Distinguish open inquiry (Dr. Schein’s “humble inquiry”) from the three other types of inquiry:

  1. Diagnostic
  2. Confrontational
  3. Process-oriented

Open Inquiry

Open inquiry evolves from authentic interest in another person. We ask questions to encourage honesty and minimize preconceived biases. We have no real agenda, other than to discover what’s on the other person’s mind.

Diagnostic Inquiry

It’s easy to veer off the path of open inquiry by homing in on a particular detail. Doing so may steer the conversation in a different direction and inadvertently return control to you.

Determine why you’re doing this. Are you trying to get the job done, or are you inappropriately indulging your curiosity?

Confrontational Inquiry

Leaders sometimes insert their own ideas in the form of a leading or rhetorical question. By doing so, you’re tacitly giving advice and trying to influence your conversation partner’s answers. Your partner may experience this as manipulative and become resistant.

Process-Oriented Inquiry

Leaders practice process-oriented inquiry  when their focus is the conversation itself. This may be helpful when a discussion starts badly. You can explore solutions by asking:

  • “What’s happening right now?”
  • “Are you feeling defensive?”
  • “Have I offended you in some way?”
  • “Are we OK?”

It takes discipline and practice to allow yourself to appear vulnerable. Consider working with an executive coach to break through any vulnerability barriers and perfect the art of humble inquiry.

Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *