I suggest that leaders and managers who ask open questions with genuine interest and curiosity will benefit by building better, more trusting relationships with the people who work for them. There are other types of questions that are useful in appropriate situations.
It’s easy to veer off the path of open inquiry by homing in on a particular detail. Doing so may steer the conversation in a different direction and inadvertently return control to you. As a leader, your perceived position may interfere with your conversation partner’s mental processes. This is neither right nor wrong but recognize that you’ve left the realm of open inquiry. You’re now engaged in diagnostic inquiry.
Determine why you’re steering the conversation in a different direction. Are you trying to get the job done, or are you inappropriately indulging your curiosity?
Leaders sometimes insert their own ideas in the form of a leading or rhetorical question. By doing so, you’re tacitly giving advice and trying to influence your conversation partner’s answers. Your partner may experience this as manipulative and become resistant.
Look at the differences in how these questions are asked:
|“Did that make you angry?”||
“How did that make you feel?” (feelings and reactions)
|“Do you think they sat that way because they were scared?”||“Why do you suppose they sat that way?” (causes and motives)|
|“Why didn’t you say something to the group?”||“What did you do? (actions)|
|“Were the others in the room surprised?”||
“How did the others react?” (shared systems and situations)
Confrontational questions can be open, as long as your conversation partner believes you’re trying to be helpful. Timing, tone of voice and other cues will establish your motive.
Leaders practice process-oriented inquiry when their focus is the conversation itself. This may be helpful when a discussion starts badly. You can explore solutions by asking:
- “What’s happening right now?”
- “Are you feeling defensive?”
- “Have I offended you in some way?”
- “Are we OK?”
- “Anything else we need to say about this?”
- “What should I be asking now?”
As the researchers who interviewed Dr. Schein reinforce in the Academy of Management Learning and Education:
“In most cultures, asking and accepting help from a subordinate or admitting not knowing the answer to a subordinate’s question disrupts the normal social order. It is ‘countercultural,’ thus often ‘not done,’ and might be felt by the leader as a loss of face and even career-threatening in highly political organizations.”
From the work I do in organizations, I see there is an underlying attitude of competitive one-upmanship that plagues senior leadership teams. This will continue to stifle inquiry unless you shift your attitude. Focus on being curious about others, without letting personal expectations and judgments cloud communication. Enjoy the benefits of asking meaningful questions in a psychologically safe work environment.
It takes discipline and practice to allow yourself to appear vulnerable. Consider working with an executive coach to break through any vulnerability barriers and perfect the art of open inquiry, what Dr. Schein describes in his book, Humble Inquiry.