Questions are the cornerstone of effective leading (and learning). Asking them primes us to grow and change, and prevents us from becoming stagnant or too set in our ways. Of course, change is difficult, and questions are often challenging to create, let alone answer. Certainly, it is easier just to search for answers, letting questions be ignored or avoiding the difficult conversations that inquiries raise.
This can sometimes mean that we take the road more traveled rather than the more meaningful one, and in today’s emotionally charged society, we can sometimes avoid the process of asking just because we don’t want the intensity that questions may bring.
Of course, avoiding questions to simply avoid conflict isn’t the answer either. In fact, it is likely better to use questions to bring us together, than to rely on answers to prevent us from drifting further apart.
So, how can we use questions to connect? Here are three methods I have found to be helpful in my work with others.
Don’t take it personally
One of the difficulties is that the way we ask a question, and the way it’s received, can drastically impact whether a question leads to collaboration or conflict. If they’re taken as a judgment of one’s value or worth, they can cause a defensive response.
Leaders can remove the personal nature from questions by trading “Why did you think” phrases for “I wonder” statements; for example, “Why did you think that reaching out to parents in that way would be helpful?” can be more helpful if phrased as, “I wonder what some really effective ways of reaching out to our class parents might involve.” You are asking for the same feedback and ideas, just not by placing a spotlight, blame or direct responsibility on a person’s decision, which can tear people down instead of building stronger connections. (Realization needs to come before responsibility.)
Get to the heart of the matter
The most helpful questions identify an opportunity. And, sometimes, the best questions don’t surface immediately; digging a bit further can lead to questions that will really make a difference. To get below the surface, take a page from the toddler handbook and make better, more frequent use of “Why?” Don’t ask about a person, as in the example above, which can sound blaming. Instead, use “why?” to better explore issues or actions until you hit on the heart of the matter. These questions may be tough to hear, but they allow open, truthful conversations about conflicts.
Using “Why?” can be disarming for some, so it’s best to prepare those we don’t know well before such intense questioning. The right question is likely to bring the right connections.
Clear your mind
Questions that help us all connect shouldn’t be phrased with a bias toward certain answers, nor should we run responses through our heads after posing the query. Prime yourself for active listening by clearing your mind, looking in the eyes of the other person and focusing on the words and ideas they’re sharing. Jot down any follow-up questions as they arise so you can maintain your focus on the rest of the answer. After all, why ask the question if we aren’t going to pay attention to the conversation?
Questions can draw people closer and foster better understanding. These three strategies won’t guarantee connection over conflict, but they will prime conversations to be more collaborative, more collegial and hopefully more constructive for strengthening learning outcomes and building better relationships and communities.
If you have other strategies for using questions to build connections, I would love to hear them (and I promise I will be a good listener as well).
Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.
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