Showing posts with label Asking Questions. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Asking Questions. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Art of Asking Questions

Today I’m featuring a guest post from Guy Parsons and Allan Milham, co-authors of Out of the Question: How Curious Leaders Win, an important book for leaders who want to take their skills to a higher level. This article is an excerpt from Chapter 3.

We all know that communication is made up of the words we use, our tonality, and our body language. A big part of asking artful questions is to consider what is beyond the words.


As the saying goes, “It isn’t what you say, but how you say it.” This difference can make or break a conversation. The tone you want to strike is one that makes your audience feel you’re coming at the conversation from the same side of the desk. It’s a we orientation versus a me and a you. It’s a solution-based system versus a problem-based process. It’s inviting and non-threatening. People, particularly millennials, are listening for the invitation to be a part of the conversation. When you’re stressed, the right words might come out, but the invitation should be, for example, “What do you think we can do to get from here to there?” You should avoid, “What are you young to do to get this done?”


Years ago, Allan worked for TMI North American, an international consulting firm focused on creating compelling service cultures. One of the examples in their service program described how a shift of inflection or an emphasis on one word in a sentence can totally change the context. Often, the quality of the inflection in our tone of voice has a significant impact on the listener.

Body Language

What your body is saying may or may not be in line with your words. Staying calm and keeping eye contact will help you invite people into the conversation. Otherwise, people sense a disconnection. This is elementary to the human condition. When someone looks at you the wrong way, you think, “Gosh, what did I do?”
Obviously, fists on tables indicate declarations even if there are questions being asked. But turned-up and outstretched palms – either one or both – invite people into the discussion. An arm waved in a soft, open arc indicates, “I’m with you and we’re exploring.” Arms that are held in, or even worse, folded, indicate the speaker is closed. Some people are born frowners; others are natural smilers. We all need to take responsibility for how we posture when we’re in this kind of situation.


The context is about what’s happening right here and now; it’s also about putting yourself in other people’s shoes and understanding how they’re affecting by what’s happening. You can ask a question, and it will mean one thing in an environment where things are going well, and something else entirely if things have gone poorly. This difference has to do with your audience’s frame of mind. Are your listeners in a positive mode or a worried mode? Obviously, asking, “How are things going?’ to a group of people who just experienced a 20% layoff is quite different from presenting the same question to a group who just exceeded its sales goals for the quarter.

This arena is where empathy, trust, and intent become important. If a leader can be empathetic, that will come across positively. On the other hand, if the person you’re talking to doesn’t trust you, it’s very hard to get the conversation going in the right direction. Many professional coaches suggest starting off a conversation by assuming positive intent. If you come in with positive intentions, the conversation will move ahead very differently and much more rapidly than if you assume negative intent.

Do you naturally assume positive or negative intent when you approach a situation?

Guy Parsons is the Founder and Managing Principal of Value Stream Solutions (VSS).  

Allan Milham’s work as a professional leadership and performance coach over the past 16 years has centered on using powerful questions. For Guy, 20+ years of delights and frustrations consulting with firms attempting to make operational and cultural transformations sparked an evolution in his relationship with his professional coach, Allan, and was the inspiration for Out of the Question: How Curious Leaders Win. Their book has sparked a new mindset and a practical approach to thriving in the competitive and evolving landscape that today’s leaders face.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Guiding Others to Make Good Decisions

Ever struggle with what to say when someone you care about is making a tough decision? Especially when they come to you for advice?

There’s a fine line between telling another person what to do and guiding them to decide for themselves. Whether it’s an employee, a coworker, friend, or family member, it’s usually a good idea to ask questions that cause them to think through the process and arrive at their own conclusions.

That’s what my husband Lee and I tried to do when our daughter Alison was selecting the colleges she’d apply to.

She took the initiative to go out and buy a huge, thick book that included what appeared to be every college in the world. But I think it was just North America.

She got a stack of post-it notes and marked each college that initially interested her. Next she started reviewing the schools more closely, narrowing the list. And then she started talking with us about her top picks (which still numbered in the dozens).

Alison knew we were planning to pay her college tuition, but we had not discussed any limitations at this point. We wanted to see where her exploration took her before defining too many ground rules.

But we were ready to speak up if her options took her very far afield from our own ideas.

It turns out, that didn't take very long.

For instance, when she spoke enthusiastically about the programs at a university in Missouri (we live in Virginia), we listened. And then we decided on rule #1:

The school had to be located close enough that she wouldn't need to get on a plane to come home on breaks. Or at least we weren't going to pay for air travel as part of the deal.

She quickly shifted her attention to schools in the mid-Atlantic area.

Then there was talk of attending schools in big urban areas like New York. She thought living in the city would be cool. When we learned what the out-of-state tuition rates were at these schools, we established rule #2:

We were willing to chip in the equivalent of the in-state tuition rate. If she chose to attend a school outside of Virginia, she would need to figure out how to pay the difference.

Suddenly, the schools in Virginia started looking attractive and became the focus of her search.

She finally settled on two – University of Virginia and James Madison University. We visited both campuses with her and discussed the pro’s and con’s of each school on the trip home. And then we left the decision up to her.

She applied to both and got accepted early to UVA, attended there all 4 years and received an outstanding education.

Alison learned a lot during that decision-making process. At various points along the way, she had to figure out how badly she wanted to go to a school that would require her to go into debt or earn money beyond what we were willing to contribute.

It worked well to give her time and space to think about a particular rule and evaluate her next steps.

So when you are approached about – or you sense that you need to be involved in – a decision someone else needs to make, stop and ask yourself, “What’s the best way I can respond that will help him/her think this through and choose wisely?”

“A mediocre person tells. A good person explains. A superior person demonstrates. A great person inspires others to see for themselves.” - Harvey Mackay, American author (1933- )