The Art of the Question: Avoid the Destructive Hooks

Did you . . . ? Do you . . . ? Don’t you . . . ? Why didn’t you . . . ? Why don’t you . . . ? etc., etc., etc..

Have you ever worked for someone who had the knack of asking questions such as these, and all the while, you knew that he/she already had their mind made up as to the answer they wanted. Or, they ask the question as a means of scolding you for not thinking like them in the first place? Sometimes I wonder why these leaders hire other people. Why don’t they simply just do it all themselves? Or, if they already have an answer, why wouldn’t they outline what they wanted beforehand and tell others to get it done, rather than wait for an outcome different than what they wanted, then ask these types of destructive questions?

These are what have often been referred to as “loaded questions”. Whether intentional or not, these questions are often loaded with hooks attached to the end, i.e. “Why didn’t you . . . ?” And the invisible, unspoken hook at the end is “Stupid”! Rather than truly offering an opportunity for an explanation for your rationale in the decision making process, they often leave you feeling totally disrespected and incompetent.

I’ll never forget one executive asking me why I was documenting a plan for increasing the pay for one of our female managers. His question “Why would you do that?” The tone of the question and the inference was that such documentation was a stupid practice. Thus the hook: “Why are you doing that, stupid?” He went on to question my competence as an HR executive by pointing out that such documentation could be subject to deposition in a law suit. It was obvious that he wasn’t interested in my explanation that this practice would be exactly what would keep us from losing a discrimination lawsuit, because it documented both our intent to find and correct such problems, and it outlined our strategy for making this right and bring her pay in line with others (especially male managers) in similar roles and skill levels.

The arrogant leader will find this entire article ludicrous and blame the hearer rather than examine themselves.

The Exceptional Leader, however, works hard to master the Art of the Question for two reasons. First, they try to hire people smarter than themselves, and are very inquisitive about their thoughts, ideas and processes. They know that not everyone thinks like they do, and though they may have an idea about what they want done, they want others to bring their unique abilities and talents to the table to improve on the process. The more they ask open ended questions with an inquisitive mindset, the more they learn, and the more they appreciate the talented people in whom they have invested so much.

Secondly, these leaders know that the best way to lead a person is to help them discover better solutions. They use the Art of the Question to help people look deeper and analyze further. Rather than simply telling the “right way”, they ask questions that lead others through the process of discovery. They know that if the person is told, there may be compliance, but there is little learning and little commitment, but if people discover solutions through a deeper analysis, they have learned something new and their commitment is much stronger.

The next time you encounter something that frustrates you about the work of a direct report or subordinate, rather than reacting with one of the easy questions that has the invisible hooks, pause and consider a new approach. Ask the person to walk you through their thought, decision-making or problem-solving processes. You might actually learn something. If the answers are still inadequate, you have an opportunity to ask additional questions that will lead them to further discovery.

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