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Asking Good Questions
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By William Davis
 
Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, had the interesting habit of walking the streets of the city asking a question. How are we doing? Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, visited as many stores as he could in a year and encouraged engagement on the part of associates by asking good questions and rewarding excellence in service. Leaders who ask questions engage their coworkers by including them in the decision making process. But what questions should we ask? How should we ask them? And who should we ask? These are the questions that I have put to a few pastors and we will look at their responses as well as some ideas from the current literature in leadership theory and practice.
  1. What questions should leaders ask?
  2. How should leaders go about asking questions?
  3. Who should leaders consult by asking questions?
Get the Facts
Information questions are important in the building foundations of understanding.Who, what, and when are the key issues in questions to clarify factual information. Having laid this foundation and verified the facts the leader may be able to put together a scenario of events in their mind that will give a background to better understand the next question of motive, or why.
 
Ask Questions that Seek Understanding as well as Information
In searching for understanding, a leader should ask questions that consider the motivation for actions taken and future plans. The reason behind the actions of co-workers and followers is a key factor in leaderships ability to effect positive change. Change based on understanding what makes the people working with the leader tick will be more effective over the long run. It should come from within the workers as opposed to from outside pressure from management. Effective change requires understanding and this comes from questions that help both the questioner and the questioned explore the facts and motivations involved.

How to Ask Questions That Bring Out the Best in People
The question process begins with relationship development. If the leader is unknown to the person being questioned, the responses may not be as open and honest as when there is a relationship built on respect and trust. Respect and trust will open the way for questions to be more productive as well as more truthful. As leaders build their relationship with followers they will earn the trust needed to ask more poignant questions that get to the heart of an issue faster.
 
The attitude of the leader while asking questions is also important. What is your body saying as you lean in and look the person in the eye as opposed to leaning back in your office chair across the desk? How does your voice sound when you ask the questions? Can the person being asked questions sense your empathy or is there a sense of mistrust or even accusation in the air? Remember that effective questions are those that dig deeper into the motives and heart of people. Honesty on their part comes more easily as the leader enhances the comfort level during questioning.
 
Informal settings help to put people at ease when being asked questions. The setting is as important as the tone of voice and body language. Offices are more imposing than a sitting room or restaurant. Questions asked over a meal or snack may feel less threatening than if asked in the hallway or in the corner office. Leaders may find it more effective to go to the person they need to gain understanding from rather than having that person come to them. Administration by walking around may help the leader gain confidence with the managers or followers s/he leads. Go to their office or class room. Meet with them in comfortable settings and they may be at ease to discuss issues more openly.

Who do we need to ask?
Issues that are personal should remain personal. Go to the sources as opposed to secondary sources. Peer reviews are needed but they also should be done in conjunction with personal conversations with the person in question. As leaders ask key leaders and managers in their organizations about their work they can gain firsthand information and reflection. In the field meetings with those closest to the issues are vital for effective understanding. Seeing and sensing as well as listening will enhance the leaders ability to understand the issues. If a department manager is having trouble the leader should visit the department and spend some time observing what is being done and how it is being done. Then the leader should meet with the manager alone to reflect on what was observed.
 
Questions are the basis of understanding. Asking the right questions in the right way from the right people will improve the chances of success for the leader and the organization.  

William Davis is pastor of the Provo, Utah church