Getting to the Truth by Asking Good Questions 

By Jim Dawson

As a manager, the most powerful tool you can have in your toolbox is the ability to ask good questions. Through asking questions, you can 1) create an environment where people trust you and their ability to solve problems for themselves, and 2) surgically remove the excuses, lies, and other irresponsible comments that erode morale and productivity.

When you know how and when to ask good questions, you can reassure the timid, disarm the dissident, and create an environment where productive conversations and win/win solutions evolve. Not only will this skill help you restore calm within the ranks, it will help you attract talented people and enhance your leadership skills beyond your expectations.

When You Think You Know the Answers, why Ask Questions?

If someone covers up a problem, blames others, or refuses to take responsibility, do you know how to resolve the situation and get back to business? Even if you know what should be done, do you know how to make it happen when passive aggressive or assertive personalities are involved? Do you know how to move things forward without bringing fight or flight responses into play?

The power of asking good questions is that they:

  • Demand an Answer

  • Provoke Thought

  • Uncover Facts

  • Keep you in Control

  • Focus the Conversation

Figuring out the Right Questions to Ask

Asking good questions is not about conducting an interrogation. And it’s not about having a therapy session. It’s more like a conversation where you are intently interested in hearing what the other person has to say. If you aren’t sure where to begin, start by asking a question you think you know the answer to. If there is a difference between what you thought and what you are told, you’ll have a better idea of the scope and importance of the problem.

Continue refining your questions until you have the big picture and any personal issues that may have a bearing on the resolution. The key is to remain objective so that you can get to the root of the problem as you fashion your questions--without being deflected by passive aggressive smokescreens or outright hostility.

Staying Cool, Calm, and in Control

Keep the following tactics in mind to help you maintain focus and keep the conversation on track.

Find the win/win. Don’t use questions to hammer someone into a corner. You want to make the other person as comfortable as you can to make sure that you are heard and that he understands the purpose of your questions. Ask questions that help him understand his options, other points of view, and what he could do differently. Your choice is to stay as neutral as possible.

Control the rate. Don’t ask rapid-fire questions. Use a conversational approach to diffuse a hostile situation, ease emotion, and establish connection. Remember that questions provoke both thought and emotion, and the higher the emotion the lower the listening. Pace your questions so people can think clearly and give honest responses.

Watch for clues. While you may not be able to tell if someone is lying, hiding a truth, or just insecure, you will know when you’ve triggered an emotion if the person you are questioning:

  • Widens or narrows his eyes or looks away

  • Talks softer or louder

  • Breathes faster or slower

  • Folds his arms tightly or gestures openly

  • Turns his body away or toward you

Look for Consistency. When someone comes to you with a complaint, they are telling you less than 50% of the story. Ask the other person his side of the story. If needed, go back to the first person and say, “You didn’t tell me everything you could have told me.”  You are the in-between person so stick to the facts. How you gather and use that information with the person making the complaint makes a big impact on the outcome.

Don’t respond to multiple complaints. Ask, “What is the one concern that is most important to you that I can help resolve?”  Forcing the choice gives you the information and direction you need to formulate your next question.  

Keep focused. Some people will give you more information than you want or talk about things unrelated to the issue at hand. Take control by saying, “I understand, however that is off topic. Let’s complete the issue at hand.”  Or you could say, “I’m asking you this question and I need a precise answer.”  If it continues ask, “Can we agree to focus on this question, and if you get off base again, I have permission to stop you?” 

Never agree there is no solution.   Turn this attitude around by stating, “It doesn’t work that way.”  Then ask questions that clarify the essential issue. When clarified, ask, “Once this is resolved, what will things look like?”

Establishing resolution

Getting people to agree to a resolution is one thing. Here’s what you can do to make sure the desired changes actually happen.

Check for understanding. Promises are useless unless everyone involved clearly understands what has been agreed to. You can ask them to restate it, put it in writing, or explain what needs to be done. The point is to make sure everyone understands the resolution, what is expected, and the consequences of violating the agreement.

Inspect what you expect. Put guidelines in place that reinforce the agreement and set a deadline if needed. Check in with those involved before the deadline and offer praise when it is due. Continue to ask questions and give advice if things still need to be done differently. If you’ve set a policy, take appropriate action to make it stick. If you don’t, you will lose credibility up and down the chain of command.

Be trustworthy. How you ask questions, conduct conversations, and use information demonstrates your integrity. If you violate a confidence or punish people for making mistakes, they will only tell you what you want to hear. The best way to build your trustworthiness is to treat people with respect and thank them for being honest. When mistakes are made, a true leader takes responsibility for the actions of his employees.

Cutting the Wheat from the Chaff

Asking good questions, uncovering the truth, and consistently going down the right path will make you a better manager. It also will attract to you people who want to work in an open culture, have the courage to deal with honest conflicts over real issues, and are not prone to petty grievances.

If you find yourself doubting your ability to ask good questions, just ask yourself one question: “When two people are arguing, who is really in control-- the person who is upset or the person asking the questions?”  That’s right. If you are the one asking the questions, you are the one gathering the information you need to work things out.

As business strategist Peter Drucker is known for saying, “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”

Read other articles and learn more about Jim Dawson.

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