Asking Questions Implies Listening

As coaches, leaders, change agents and even parents, the act of asking questions can take on an almost magical power to guide and change behavior. As with any powerful tool, when the tool begins to take on magical attributes, the users of the tool begin to forget that a tool is just a tool.  At that point, to quote Ian Brown, “they just become a fool with a tool.” Questions are a useful tool for a coach because questions:

  1. Show a behavior that can be modeled by others.  When you ask questions, you are showing others that it is valuable to seek information rather than just to provide opinions, knowledge, and information.
  2. Facilitate active learning by encouraging participation. The process of asking questions tends to elicit a response (unless you are talking to yourself) from the people you are interacting with.  Responses can come in many forms ranging from answers to follow-up questions. Regardless of the type of response, a response requires engagement that provides a basis for learning.
  3. Avoid raising barriers due to defensiveness. Making a statement establishes a position; if the listener has a strong opinion, statements can generate barriers between the listener and others.  Questions (constructed correctly – there are bad questions) draw out what the listener thinks without raising barriers.
  4. Bust the bias that presupposes knowing the answer.  When confronted with a problem or an issue it is often easy to immediately jump to a conclusion based on our experience or predisposition.  Asking questions allow the asker to challenge what we think we know rather than to accept what we think we know as truth.
  5. Assume uncertainty. Making a statement presupposes certainty, most real-life situations are far from certain. Therefore, asking questions can help to expose the difference between what is known, what is unknown and most importantly what we think we know and really don’t.
  6. Expose boundaries.  Most organizations are a series of boundaries.  Holacracy uses the metaphor of circles within circles.  Asking questions helps the questioner to define where the real boundaries are rather than relying on org charts or blundering around in the dark.  
  7. Expose vulnerability in a controlled manner. One of the most important roles of a coach is to expose and help to disarm team members’ vulnerabilities.  Rather than rely solely on observation or the Vulcan mind meld, questions are a tool to help identify pain and vulnerabilities.
  8. Stop a coach from talking. If you are listening (and not talking), as a coach, you will get in a lot less trouble!

Questions are not an end in their own right.  Every great interviewer – such as Larry King- understands that the question is important, BUT the answer is what counts. Asking questions is a means to an end!