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The Power of Questions

The Power of Questions

​- by Bryan Emmerson -

If the purpose of communication is to communicate thought, are some methodologies better than others?  More specifically, is it better to make statements or ask questions? Let’s take a look.

If I make a statement, there really are only two responses to it. You either agree or disagree with it. If you agree, we have created a little clarity. If you disagree, how much energy you have behind it is proportional to the wall that I have just created between us.

On the other hand, if I ask a question it does several things:

  1. It forces you to listen. We all have been in a situation where we have listened to somebody drone on and on.  Sometimes they begin to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher (wah-wah-wah …).  If you are asked a question, you are much more likely to pay attention as it requires a response and you don’t want to be embarrassed (arguably a good side of human pride – more on this in my next blog).
  2. It forces you to think. Again your pride comes to your rescue. That is, you want to give a thoughtful answer so as not to appear stupid or foolish.
  3. It shows respect as it says your answer is important and has value to me. Someone once said, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

I find the best way to explain something is to use real-life examples. In 1998, I was promoted from plant manager to VP of operations. After finishing his orientation, my replacement as plant manager came to me and asked me what the company’s policy was in responding to employees concerns and issues. I informed him that we have an open door policy and any employee could come and talk to any manager. If somebody came to my office, the first words out of my mouth after they described the issue was “have you talked to your supervisor about this?” And then, “Have you talked to the next person in the chain of command?” And so on. If the answer was “no” anywhere along the way then my response would be, “I will make two promises to you. First I will listen intently to everything you say. Second, I would do absolutely nothing about it.  You need to allow the appropriate person to address your problem. I’m not going to undermine the chain of command and cut the legs out from under any manager.” I then explained that if the answer was that they had gone through proper channels then I would listen to their issue and respond appropriately. The plant manager said that he like that process, but asked if an employee got to him, could he bring him/her into my office to watch how I dealt with the situation so that he could better understand how I wanted things done? I thought that was a good suggestion, and I agreed.

The process was straight forward. The plant manager would come into my office and explain the situation (as he understood it) prior to the employee joining us. We would go through the meeting with the employee and then the plant manager and I would debrief afterwards. After the second time doing this, the plant manager looked at me, smiled and said, “You’re stealthy”. I asked him what he meant. He said, “When the first employee that came through, I couldn’t figure what you were doing, but this time I think I figured it out. You asked them questions and painted them into a corner using their answers and their own logic patterns.” I told him that he was absolutely correct. “You’re stealthy” he repeated.

One principle of communication is that the person that asks the questions, controls the conversation. This does not imply that you should continuously bombard somebody with questions. That is just irritating.  What it does mean is that some well-thought-out questions can guide the discussion.  A well considered question communicates intelligence and analytical ability.

Another powerful concept related to this is the power of silence. Sometimes you ask a question and the other person is aware of where you are taking the conversation and doesn’t want to give the answer. In this case, many times the person is saying I don’t like the question and I’m not going to answer it. It is basically a passive-aggressive way of avoiding an unpleasant (for them) conclusion. When this happens, most people will move on. Don’t do this! What you’ve essentially done is given them back control of the conversation. You need to wait them out. This is uncomfortable in Western culture as we tend not to like silence, and the other person is counting on that. Those next few seconds are very uncomfortable and the person will most likely feel compelled to respond.

Occasionally they are prepared to wait you out. In that instance, you can force the issue by saying, “Would you like me to repeat the question?” This implies they were not listening to you. Or you could say, “Would you like me to rephrase the question?” This implies they didn’t understand you. I have found that it doesn’t take very long for classical conditioning to kick in and they will begin to be more forthcoming in answering questions as nobody wants to be seen as not paying attention or not smart enough to understand what you’re saying.

I know that this may sound overly simple, but it does work. I had a client that was having difficulty with a long-term employee. The employee took the above described passive-aggressive non-answering posture. When my client told me about using these techniques, his eyes were sparkling and he was excited. “It worked. Just like you said. I couldn’t believe it.” I had another client that use the same technique on their teenage daughter. “It was unbelievable”, he said,” I was able to have a conversation that didn’t end up in shouting, and we were actually able to communicate with each other”.

My final advice would be twofold. First, assess your own conversation. Are you asking questions or are you making a lot of statements?  Second, I would encourage you to try asking more questions. This takes a little practice at first. You may have to think of the questions ahead of time for a specific situation. After a while, like most things, it will become more natural and just a part of your new way of doing things.

I hope this has been helpful, and remember … 

Your success matters!

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