Leaders need to gather information effectively – quickly and accurately. Misunderstandings can be embarrassing, easily lead to conflict, and cost time, money and credibility.  But how can you collect the facts without revealing ignorance? You need to ask the right questions, in the right way.

With the right questions, you not only learn what you need to know. At the same time, you become more proficient at managing and influencing relationships with key stakeholders.

That leads to higher quality projects, faster development cycles and more satisfied customers, employees and partners.

But how, specifically, do you ask the *right* questions? There are three steps.

Step 1: Pay Attention!

To understand how to ask the right questions, you need to understand that there are three key skills in collaborative communication.

  • Attracting attention
  • Directing attention
  • Paying attention

On the internet, everyone’s attention is on attracting attention. Maybe your attention is on attracting attention by asking a smart question?

But in order to ask the right question, we have to change the running order. Paying attention comes first.

You need to listen well; to understand what’s being said and what’s not being said; to realise the implications of both.

Listening well is what great leaders have done throughout the ages. They have realised that the quality of your attention can determine the quality of another person’s thoughts. And that can determine their destiny.

Paying attention is a big deal:

  • “A good listener is not only popular everywhere: after a while, he gets to know something.” Most people love being listened to. If you are interested in them, they’ll notice it.
  • Quick tip: don’t overdo the eye contact! Soften your gaze somewhat to encourage a gentler, more thoughtful conversation.
  • By paying attention, you discover what the other person’s experience of the world is. Often, it’ll be delightfully different from your own. That distinctiveness has high value – don’t be lulled into thinking that they are the same as you! That’s where misunderstandings begin.

Listen carefully and notice the exact words that the person uses. You’ll need them later!

Once you have paid plenty of attention, so that you have a good sense of how things are for the other person, then you can direct attention with the right question.

Step 2: Select A Powerful Subject That Directs Attention Well

One of the most interesting questions about questions is “What are you asking your questions for?”

Of course, there are all kinds of reasons why we ask questions, and I imagine the first thing that springs to mind is that you want to understand something.

But if you think about why other people ask questions, you can probably come up with examples of where people have asked questions just to score points off another person.

You might ask questions to help another person to do their very best thinking, to help them to clarify what they’re thinking and what they really mean.

And you can also use questions to change a person’s emotional state. This is very important, particularly when we’re working remotely from each other, but something that people often miss.

Let me ask you, “What happens when you are asked a question?”

If you’re like most people, you think about it; you go inside and you search for the answer.

It seems that human beings can’t help but go inside to search for the answer when they’re asked a question. The interesting thing about this is that it means if you ask a particular question, you are directing the other person’s attention; you are controlling their emotional state, just for that instant.

Notice what happens when I ask you a series of questions like, “When was the last time you were really curious about something? What did that curiosity feel like? Whereabouts in your body did you feel that curiosity? Did that curiosity have a size or a shape?” The questions are directing your attention to that emotion of curiosity and, as a result, it increases your current sense of curiosity.

If you, as a questioner, can direct someone’s attention with your questions, you can direct their energy, because where attention goes, energy flows. You are influencing them.

So, a really powerful question directs attention appropriately. It respects the emotions of the other person. It has a purpose: to gather information; to build the relationship; to get the other person thinking new and helpful thoughts.

The right question helps both you, and the other person, to really understand the problem that needs to be solved and the potential solution.

Specifically, this is often a question which directs the person’s attention to the boundary between what they already know, and what they don’t yet know. You’re helping them to explore their “unknown knowns”. That kind of question is almost always the right question.

Step 3: Ask Your Question Elegantly

“Of the entirety of the FBI’s hostage negotiation skill set, this is the closest one gets to a Jedi mind trick. Simple, and yet uncannily effective.” That’s the view of Chris Voss, the FBI’s former chief hostage negotiator.

The very same trick has been shown to increase a waitress’s tips by 70 per cent. It just works.

And what is it? Quite simply, repeat back two or three of the words the person has used before you ask your question.

Ideally, use those words in the question itself. It takes a little practice to do this fluently, but it’s worthwhile.

By using the person’s own words, you send them the message that you really understand them. It doesn’t matter if you actually understand them or not. That’s why it’s a trick.

A simple way to do this is to use the Clean Language questions.

For example,

  • What kind of X?
  • Is there anything else about X?

where X represents one or more of the person’s own words.

And there’s more to an elegant question than just the words. Your body language and voice tone matter, too.

What works? Simply, be curious. Respect and enjoy the difference between you and the other person. And keep on paying attention!

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