One of the most common questions I am asked as a coach is this: what makes for a powerful question? I’m glad it comes up so often. After all, asking good questions is key to so many other important things: giving and receiving feedback, leaning in to healthy conflict, developing a team and the individuals, leading change—basically everything from LEAD 24/7!
So what is the answer? What makes for a great question? I’m not sure I’ve cornered the market on this one, but in today’s post I want to come at the question from a few different angles in the hope that this will be helpful to you.
Sometimes I know I’ve asked a great question because those are almost the exact words that the other person says first: “that’s a good question.” However, most of the time that response is simply code for the truth: the other person doesn’t have an immediate answer to the question and needs time to process it to come up with one. GIVE THEM THAT TIME!
When this happens, you’ve hit pay dirt. No one likes to live with an unanswered question. So if a question requires another person to pause and reflect, you’ve probably asked a great question. When this happens, zip your lip, leave room for silence, and let that person reflect.
Here is another way of getting at the same thing. I’ve also learned that I don’t have any idea what the great question is going to be in advance. We almost always find out afterward if a question is powerful. This is humbling. We just don’t know in advance what question is going to unlock answers or clarity for another person.
So how DO you know if a great question is a great question? The answer is that you don’t until afterward when you are being quiet and listening.
Many of you have heard me and the Leading by DESIGN team reference the book Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. She has a specific method called Mineral Rights Conversations. It’s one good system among many. I reference it here because when she leads workshops on how to do this she always does a demonstration. In that demonstration she asks the observers ahead of time to see if they can spot the “secret rule” that makes the conversation so powerful.
She gets some interesting and good answers afterward such as “you didn’t get sidetracked by rabbit trails,” “you had great eye contact,” “you didn’t offer advice,” “you weren’t distracted,” etc.
But none of those things are the secret rule. And here it is (spoiler alert!). Her secret rule is….questions only. ONLY AFTER the person she’s with has made it through the final step of the Mineral Rights conversation (this is the one where the person answers what the next potent step is that they need to take) does she do anything but ask questions. She disciplines herself to avoid all advice and even all leading questions.
Keep sharpening those listening skills. Use the Secret Rule more often. Refuse to jump in when someone is unable to answer the question. I promise that when you do end up making a declarative statement, that too will be far more powerful.