By Elisabeth Goodman, 25th April 2016
Why quiet questioning?
Two of the most powerful resources available to us as managers, and as members of a team are questions and silence.
The ideal dynamic, when we are working with others, is to have a natural back and forth of conversation: each person comfortably expressing their views, their feelings, their ideas and listening, responding to, and building on the other’s.
That ideal to and fro of conversation occurs when each person is taking ownership for their part in whatever is being discussed, is fully motivated, and has no trouble being assertive; when there is good rapport.
But we know that this ideal scenario is just that, that there are times when it does not happen, when it is hard to know what to say, when emotions get in the way, when the other person cannot or will not play their part.
This is when asking questions, asking the right questions, and being comfortable with silence can really make a difference.
Asking the right question
We already know that open questions (those starting with Why, What, How, When, Where) are much more effective in engaging others in conversation than closed ones (that elicit only a Yes or No answer). It’s so easy to slip up and ask a closed question such as:
“Are you feeling sad?” as opposed to, for example: “What are you feeling sad about?”
I’ve been learning about ‘clean’ questions: those that contain as little of the questioner’s bias as possible. So for example the question:
“What are you feeling sad about?” includes our interpretation that the other person is sad. It may be that they have told us this, in which case it may be an appropriate follow-up question.
But if they have not told us they are sad, we may be making a big assumption based on their facial expression or body language – but we don’t really know and we are not mind-readers.
So a clean question would be: “How are you feeling”?
And if they do say “I’m feeling sad”, then another suitable ‘clean’ follow-up question might be “What kind of sadness is that?”, or “In what way are you feeling sad?”, or even just “Sad?” So you are reflecting back on what the other person has said, rather than inserting your interpretation.
Caitlin Walker’s “From Contempt to Curiosity” has some terrific structures to help any manager or individual use questions to foster open dialogue and build rapport between individuals and within teams.
Rachel Alexander’s and Julia Russel’s “And the Next Question is – Powerful Questions for Sticky Moments” has a rich selection of different questions to use in different situations.
And we can learn so much from NLP (NeuroLinguisticProgramming) too about spotting the assumptions that we and others make in our language, and how to ask questions to get past those. For example if someone is saying to you: “This kind of situation always makes me sad”, we can ask “Always?”, or “What kind of situation is that?” or even “In what way?”
Using quietness, or silence
Even when we’ve developed the skill to ask the right questions, we can destroy the effect we’ve tried to create by jumping in with our own suggested answer!
Silence is so powerful: it gives the other person time to reflect and come up with their own answer. It tells them that we care and want to listen to what they have to say. It encourages them if they are feeling hesitant.
Silence can be companionable too. Sometimes just working alongside the other person on something in which you are both involved, or going for a walk together, will create the conditions for the other person to open up and say what they have to say. You may not even have to frame a question!
Developing skills in quiet questioning
I’m still learning and practising the art of quiet questioning. It’s something that we can not only apply at work, but in our interactions with people at home too.
I will continue to reflect upon and share my experiences in my work with managers and teams. It would be great to hear about your experiences too.
About the author
Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, with a focus on the Life Sciences. (We use training, facilitation, coaching, mentoring and consulting in our work with our clients.)
Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting Information Management and other business teams on a global basis.
RiverRhee is a support supplier for One Nucleus, a quality assured training provider with Cogent Skills and a CPD provider for CILIP (Chartered Institute for Library and Information Professionals).
Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner.
She is a member of CILIP and of APM (Association for Project Management) where she leads the Internal Collaboration theme of the Enabling Change SIG committee.