How Questions are Statements and What to Do About It
Questions are statements for those who listen.
Questions, more than statements, explain who you are.
Lack of questions is most revealing of all. Those who don’t ask questions are either disinterested, afraid, arrogant, or ignorant.
Questions from others affirm experience or wisdom. People trust you. But there’s a challenging side.
Questions reveal incompetence. “I wish they would act without asking questions,” for example, may be a statement about your lack of leadership.
The questions you hear expose leadership successes, opportunities, challenges, or deficiencies.
The dark side of questions:
Some questions are manipulations.
- They disagree but don’t want to speak up.
- They’ll blame you if things go wrong.
- They don’t want to act.
- They’re looking for a way out.
- They’re covering for incompetence.
Some questions are manipulations; all are explanations.
Questions explain how others view:
- Your responsibilities. They ask because they believe you’re responsible.
- Their authority.
- Power. Those with power ask fewer questions. Helpless people ask incessantly.
- Organizational structures.
- Institutional values.
- Project goals.
- Team interactions.
Every question says something.
Permission questions say:
- I don’t feel empowered.
- I want you to take responsibility.
- I feel insecure.
Direction questions say:
- I’m confused. Goals aren’t clear.
- Values require clarification. Explain values if you want others to choose direction.
- I don’t understand where I fit in.
Assurance questions say:
- Organizational structures hinder initiative.
- Confidence is low.
- Mistakes are often punished.
- Teammates aren’t qualified.
Tip: Assurance is a gift to qualified, motivated team members.
How-to questions say:
- I’m choosing a path and need insight.
- It’s time for training.
- I have a strong need to succeed.
Tip: Respond to how-to questions with “What do you suggest,” before giving suggestions.
Repeated questions say:
- Systems are lacking.
- Procedures need updating.
- Structure is unclear.
- You’re a control freak.
How do questions reveal the questioner?
How might leaders use the questions they hear as tools for leadership?
Resources for better questions:
“Power Questions,” by Sobel and Panas
“A More Beautiful Question,” by Berger
Interesting, I don’t think I ever realized there were so many facets to how a question can be formed, what’s it’s goal might be, or what is says about the questioner’s perception and frame of reference.
I wonder if it makes it harder to hear others’ question in this way when your own head is full of questions. Maybe a good start off question when you see someone seems distracted or distressed is “what questions do you have? My guess is that you have at least one.”
Thanks James. “What questions do you have?” is a GREAT question. Love it.
I learn a lot about people from the questions they ask. It helps me relate to them.
what about this one: “waht questions do you think you don’t have?”. Paradoxal, for sure. Revealling some times for the listeners.
Thanks Fred. That one confuses me… 🙂
The willingness to ask questions is akin to curiousity and deomonstartes your mindset on learning. A growth mindest says “I want to learn and am not afraid to show I don’t understand”, while a fixed mindset says” I won’t ask a question as it will show I am lacking in my knowledge. One is an opportunity, the other a limitation
In work, social and family situations I try and practice asking a 2nd follow-up question. This really demonstares you are actively listening. It also reaffirms the value of the person with whom you are speaking. And you might just discover a new connection or shared interest.
The art of asking questions is the ‘ How ‘. The opportunity from a question comes from REALLY listening and unpacking what might lie beneath the actual words.
A good leader asks open questions and actively listens to the answer.
Thanks Dan for reminding us of the huge power of questions.
Hi, Dan: Indeed questions say a lot about person asking the question, it is a learning experience to listen to other people’s questions. I find it especially valuable in coaching situations, as a leaders it’s somewhat different, it all depends on situations and its urgency. Last, but not least, what James points out is also very common, many people are so concerned with the impression they make, what to say next, that they hardly listen to questions, missing out on a golden opportunity.
Thanks for reminding us what a complex issue this is.
Thanks Irene. Glad you brought up urgency. Curiosity and urgency often collide.
Beautiful summary to help get you out of denial about your team….
Author, Alignment for Success
Bringing Out the Best in Yourself, Your Team and Your Company
Thanks Katharine. Denial is more prevalent than we might think.
Thanks for a great post Dan. Questions signal that people want to engage with you and they are willing to listen to you. What a great opportunity! I hope I don’t miss it.
Thanks Duane. Questions say, “Open up and engage.” Great point.
Dan, thank you for the clearest and most concise summary re: questions that I’ve ever read.
I once read (but I cannot remember the source) that the questions a person ask reveal his/her real priorities, and have found it to be true. The leader who speaks at length about quality, but asks hard questions only about deliveries makes a dual statement, “I really care about deliveries and could care less about quality” and “I am duplicitous”. The leader who asks on Monday morning “How was your son’s hockey tournament?” before asking you “When can we have a meeting re: the budget next quarter?” indicates he/she cares about you as a person as much or more as person who is paid to get things done. The leader who never asks open-ended questions is either inept or doesn’t want to invite discussion. The leader who speaks too much and questions too little is likely narcissistic or overconfident. The leader who asks questions he/she knows will embarrass is manipulative. Etc….
Thanks again, Dan. This was great.
Thanks Marc. I find your illustrations very helpful. Thank you.
Amazing post, Dan and fantastic comments, Marc.
People reveal themselves in trifles….and questions. I’m always on the lookout for manipulative questions….the reveal the questioner and the one questioned. I have used this tactic to give colleagues a chance to address something that has been overlooked or is erroneous, or to just give the chance for someone to actually hear what they’re saying. When your intent is pure, questions can be a great strategy for so many nuances an omissions that need attention.
Thanks for this
The leverage of great leadership lies not just in the skls they bring to the table but in the way they see, make safe space for and help cultivate the fullness of what others can contribute as well.
I find questions very useful in helping to develop the judgement and confidance of others- in keeping with the format of ur post, we might see these questions under the heading Talent or team building or collaboration enhancing questions- that leaders might ask their team mates (rather than responding or weighing in too soon)-i.e…..
What are your thoughts?
How would you handle this situation?
What do you recommend?
Have you discussed this with…your colleagues, supervisor, team, or individual in question?….as the case may be
Questions are indeed powerful leadership tools- that can help denekop talent and cultivate a culture of empowerment and collaboration
I have one for you, Dan- how are you so disciplined, and so full of creative and thoughtful insights, day in and day out?
Whatever the answer- I, for one, am ever grateful for your daily wisdom and inspiration and for the invariably thoughtful conversations you inspire!
Have a great day! Lori
Btw.. In case u were wondering- and afraid to ask!- my creative/ unorthodox spelling is a function of two parts IPhone typing error to one part ever inventing, ADD brain!😉
Thanks Lori. I enjoy creative spelling! The one I most enjoyed in your comment was denekop for develop. 🙂
Where does Leadership Freak come from:
1. I frequently pour into my own leadership cup. You can’t pour anything out unless you keep pouring in.
2. I pay attention to my own leadership journey and the people I work with. This post was born in a coaching session I had yesterday. During that conversation I realized that some questions are permission questions and others are direction questions. I jotted a few notes and ended up with this post.
3. I’ve made lots of mistakes. Or, should I say, I’ve had lots of learning experiences.
Cheers and thanks for asking.
So very true! I work as an assistant for a Facilities Director. The maintenance crew often come to me looking for guidance or answers to what direction they should take on a particular project or work order. I have found that they usually have the answer themselves, only need direction, assurance, permission, or just validation to proceed. I love being asked questions on projects and saying, “What do you think would be best?” I have never failed to get an answer and then to be able to say, “Sounds good to me! Go for it.” Most of the questions that come to me are for validation, and I love being able to validate the skill and intelligence of my workers.
Thanks pmaddams. Great illustration. I’m glad you illustrate the positive side of validation. I think leaders might get frustrated with people’s need for validation or confirmation. But, it doesn’t take that long.
Validation isn’t doing it FOR someone. It’s just releasing them. I think we might do better if we kept looking for validation opportunities.
Excellent post Dan!
I LOVE questions! As long as they aren’t intentionally being used to hide behind or to remain ambiguous.
Answer a question with a questions types… drives me nuts! : )
That means…the person either doesn’t know the answer, is trying to evade an honest and direct response (the truth), an uncommitted attitude, etc.
Questions can be great in order to sleuth things out in a situation. (similar to detective work)
Questions are also great in helping uncover motives; in self and others.
Questions are also a great way of figuring out what people believe; to separate true and false beliefs.
Questions are also a reflection of our values at times.
Great post. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks Samantha. The “question with a question” approach does have a down side. Sometimes people just want an answer.
As a leader who loves to develop people, answering questions with questions is a tool for development.
As a leader who wants to get things done, answering questions with questions just slows the process.
Perhaps one consideration has to do with long-term opportunity vs. short-term timelines.
Yes, I’m familiar with the development approach to the question/question…For clarification, I was strictly referring to when it is being used to evade. And a huge waste of time!
Questions may reveal the questioner by two ways- whether the questioner is curious to know or he is questioning to test the knowledge of other. There may be other perspectives as well. When questioners has decided to listen what he wants, this shows his ignorance to learn. Secondly, questioner may not pay attention to other aspect, and suddenly he wants to ask. So, there are various situations that can reveal questioner. But, in all, intention plays major role to decide about the questioners.
Similarly, leaders also express various attributes when asked questions. They can directly respond to question, they can reject the question or they can deviate the question. There are various ways to deal with the questions. It also depends upon leadership intention. Leaders should understand the intention behind asking question. However, they are much mature than those who ask, so, they should respond with right intention.
I think questions reveal both- both questioner and leaders.
Great as always! Questions relate to intentions of the requester, we need more information, lack of clarity in the announcement etc. They can also have inferior motives with bitter intent only the requester knows their intent, hopefully they are honest and true intentions. To manipulate and agitate do occur, be ready on the podium, worst case is I don’t know and will get back to you once I research the response. (tell the truth does help if the question is beyond ones expertise). Nothing to be ashamed of if you don’t know unless you portrayed you do know!
Great post. Thank you very much.
One aspect could be added: “coaching questions”. i.e; “how do you feel yourself asking questions” or “how would you ask if you were not afraid asking?” are questions benefiting the listener (more than the questioner). In that case, what will be the interpretation of the listener?
Yes there is cleverness in asking question, and wisdom in asking good question (or reverse).
Wish you a good day
I’ve followed your blog for years now, and for the first time feel compelled to add to the great comments of the daily contributors. Your statement that the “lack of questions is most revealing of all. Those who don’t ask questions are either disinterested, afraid, arrogant, or ignorant” was dissonant for me as a classic introvert. I prefer to listen well and process information before offerring questions or opinions. I may speak up toward the end of the meeting, or bring up issues days after. My apparent lack of participation can be perceived as apathy, especially when there are extroverts in the room ready to think as they speak.
Thank you so much for your daily tidbits of wisdom. Your insights have made me such a better manager and overall person.
Thanks “innie.” LOoks like I should have added another category. Thankfully you added it.
I too am an introvert and like to think deeply about the ideas presented before asking questions. From now on I will indicate that I need to think things over and ask for time to discuss any questions later.
Thanks Nancy. I find that even when I think I’m giving enough time for my introverted friends, I find out that I could give them even more space and time.
I’m thankful you and “innie” joined the conversation.
I never really thought of this but it is true that a question reveals a lot about the person asking the question and the person being asked. This give me a lot of clarity as to the situation I am in a work in regards to a temporary manager asking me constant questions. It also gives me a better understanding of how to answer him.
Thanks for the post!
As they said on the Prisoner “Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself”. But maybe that isn’t entirely appropriate!
I would query the statement “Those with power ask fewer questions. Helpless people ask incessantly.” My experience is very strongly at odds with this. People who are powerless and know it often ask no questions. Not only do they not feel empowered to ask anything, but also feel that irrespective of whether or not they ask, their circumstances will not change. Worse, they can feel that asking questions draws attention to them, which will invariable have negative repercussions.
I can relate to your comments. When sincere questions to the leader are met with impatience and arrogance, those wanting to ask questions feel disempowered and simply stop asking questions.
As a leader who leads others, I often ask my managers question on what they are telling to push them to think outside the box. If I tell them what to do next, I only give them one path to follow. However, by asking questions on their path, it causes them to think in different directions to find a better way.
I really like today’s post. Thank you for this
There is always a purpose for a question. The key for the leader is to determine that purpose. Often, the culture within an organization will drive the types of questions and you will find them resonating along the same lines. For example, if an organization is one that supports open communication without fear of reprisal, then questions may be used to help steer a leader to lacking needs. On the other hand, in an organization where there is fear and micromanagement, questions may be posed in spite of the lack of knowledge or know-how of those in charge. The key with any type of question is not so much the question itself but rather how the questions are answered. It is at that juncture that a precedence will be established in terms of communication.
I am quiet and I don’t come off as a people person when people first encounter me. Once people get to know me then i open up more. I ofter go to networking events and dont know the right questions to ask. Can you help me out by providing some good questions to ask to break the ice and keep the conversation going…
Thanks MY…. My friend Bob Burg has a set of wonderful questions at: http://www.burg.com/10-feel-good-questions/ , Best for the journey
This is a very interesting idea, one that I’ve shared in a small way over the years, albeit to a much smaller degree.
The common opinion is that if you’re asking questions, you’re ignorant to an extent, to the topic of the question. I’ve noticed a lot of the time I’m simply looking for confirmation to what I already “know”, or I’m trying to ingratiate myself with someone by asking their opinion thus involving them in the solution to my problem. People feel more comfortable if they believe they are helping you, so to speak. Of course I ask plenty of questions about things that I am truly uninformed in, but, the fun side of questions is forcing people to think,and if the question is structured properly, think very intently.
Interesting post! You’ve done just that.