With the prevalence of Google and Internet search tools, it can feel like the answers to our most pressing questions are just a few clicks away. In the face of this information, the ability to formulate thoughtful questions is critical in allowing us to sort through a myriad of details and generate solutions.
As humans, we are innately curious. We have an inborn desire to explore our surroundings and ask questions to learn about the world and ourselves. Dr. David Cooperrider, who is best known as the co-creator of Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a methodology for creating strengths-based change, states, “Humans (and human kind) move in the direction of what they most persistently, authentically, and systematically ask questions about.” This message encapsulates the importance of questions not only as a tool for self-reflection but also as a catalyst for organizational development.
The experience of the incoming CEO of Levi Strauss shows the power of questions to drive change. When Chip Bergh arrived at the company in September 2011, he went on a listening tour. He asked the following questions of the company’s top executives that gave him the direction he needed to take the iconic brand forward:
- What are three things we should not change?
- What are three things we absolutely must change?
- What’s one thing you’re hoping I’ll do?
- What’s one thing you’re afraid I may do?
After 15 to 20 of these meetings, the CEO had a clear sense of the challenges facing the company. He made it a point to listen and engage employees in the change process through questions rather than telling them what to do or making statements that would shut down collaboration and cooperation.
As this example illustrates, questions and thoughtful answers can build trust and promote teamwork and a shared understanding. So, how can we apply these lessons to become better questioners? We can start by asking empowering questions…those that typically begin with “what” or “how” and are often simple, intuitive, and spontaneous.
Empowering questions lead to clarifications, help to create specific engagement, connect to the individual’s desire for success, elicit feedback, and generate movement.
Here are some examples of empowering questions:
- What do you want?
- What do you see happening next?
- What’s important about that?
- What are you excited about?
- What is your intention?
- What are you overlooking?
Empowering questions have benefits beyond the obvious. They help us see what is possible, identify desired outcomes, and expand options. Effective questions also help us get support and identify the next steps.
It is important to note that listening is essential. When you ask the question and listen to the response, without interrupting or interjecting, the person or group you are talking with will recognize your authenticity, which builds connection and trust. And, most importantly, is to create an atmosphere where asking questions is safe, encouraged, acknowledged, and valued.
In the spirit of inquiry, it is appropriate to close by asking, “How do you use questions to learn and interact with colleagues?” Feel free to leave questions in the Comments section below.
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