“We all live in the world our questions create,” according to David Cooperrider, the founder of Appreciative Inquiry. That observation is a testament to the power of questions to shape so much of our life at work — what we ask sets the stage for who we will become together. In addition, how we ask sets the stage for much of how we feel, how willing we are to explore, and how deeply we are willing to join together with others to accomplish our aims.
Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, quotes Dan Rothstein, founder of the Right Question Institute, who also points to this reality of the power of questions in how we work together: “It’s an experience we’ve all had at one point or another… Just asking or hearing a question phrased a certain way produces an almost palpable feeling of discovery and new understanding.” (p. 16-17).
Just asking or hearing a question phrased a certain way lights us up. Yes! But how do we phrase questions to most reliably elicit that light bulb effect? Are there keys to how we ask questions that help us light up our own thinking and draw out the best ideas in groups? Yes! We can reliably ask questions that light up our thinking and attune us to each other’s best ideas when we tap into our emotional and social intelligence at the same time that we draw on our analytic skill. The best conversations use Q+A that is sensitive, empathic, and finely adjusted to the appropriate tone and pace for the situation at hand.
Here are three techniques that reliably help us adjust to the social and emotional demands of the work context at the same time that we draw on the seven categories of analytic questions involved in Precision Q+A.
When necessary, offer a short preamble
A preamble is a short phrase that comes right before a question in order to explain or set expectations. Preambles are useful to help others understand our needs, convey important information quickly, or adjust the conversation without taking too much time or cognitive load. (You can learn more about them in another of our Skill Sharpeners – Conquering the Fear of the Stupid Question).
Three kinds of preambles that help us attune
To attune others to our needs as well as tune into theirs, we might want to use a preamble to explain why we are asking someone direct questions: For example, “Dorothy, since you know more about the Piedmont project than anyone else on the team, I’d like to ask you a couple of quick, precise questions about it.” Dorothy won’t feel singled out unfairly. Instead, she’ll see that you recognize her expertise and she’ll be able to relax into your discussion of the project.
To attune others to our audience assumptions we may want to use a preamble to indicate our audience. For example, “Sanjay, that’s such helpful information. One of our customers is asking me some detailed questions about our new solution. Can I dive into the customer’s point of view with you?”
To indicate that we are moving through points in our thinking and help others follow, we may want to use a preamble to guide people through our thinking. For instance, “Xian, I’m aware of the time, and I know we need to get through a discussion of two key indicators so I’m going to move to the second one now.”
The preamble is designed to make our intentions clear. This is one part of phrasing our questions in a way that helps unlock the feeling of discovery and doing our best thinking together.
Listen for the Tone of the Conversation
You’ve probably heard the wise phrase: how we ask matters as much as what we ask. Researchers point out that the tone of our voice is one of the primary ways we convey information about emotion to one another as human beings (find one thorough explanation here). The tone of voice in a conversation can convey ease, comfort, playfulness, and curiosity – taking us deeper into a zone where it becomes easy to think together. Of course, tone can also convey impatience, frustration, anger, or indifference – taking us away from that zone where we work best together.
Even under pressure, we have the capacity to relax our tone and invite others to join us in solving a problem quickly. Combined with a preamble about the need to work fast, a relaxed tone can help solidify the social bonds that keep a team motivated to meet a challenge. Often, this tone has humility and an invitation to think together. Organizational scholar Edgar Schein points to this difference in tone as part of what he calls Humble Inquiry:
“The dilemma in U.S. culture is that we don’t really distinguish what I am defining as Humble Inquiry carefully enough from leading questions, rhetorical questions, embarrassing questions, or statements in the form of questions—such as journalists seem to love— which are deliberately provocative and intended to put you down.”
A tone of curiosity and humility is part of how we phrase questions that light up our thinking. We can adjust our tone by where we place emphasis in our question, for instance:
How *much* of a difference were you expecting to see in the data? (more curious)
How much of a difference were you *expecting* to see in the data? (more provocative)
Do *you* think the data is actually solid? (more curious)
Do you think the data is actually *solid*? (more challenging)
We can also adjust the tone with how we phrase our questions and with mindfulness about the emotions behind our word choice. For example:
Are you assuming the situation hasn’t changed? (more antagonistic, us vs. them)
Are we assuming the situation hasn’t changed? (more collaborative, we are in it together)
Listen carefully to the tone of your work conversations. When you suspect that the tone is becoming unhelpful in some way, suggest an adjustment or simply ask if the group can shift the tone by offering your observation along with a helpful question! It might sound like this:
I’m hearing a little of the project pressure sneaking into the tone of our conversation. I wonder if we would be more creative if we took a break and came back with some fresh ideas and some more curiosity?
Questions that open up exploration and light us up for discovery vary in how quickly they come to mind. Sometimes, slow questions that explore complex intellectual terrain are necessary. Going too quickly means we will miss things and leave others behind. At other times, however, we might be brainstorming questions and the more curious we become the more rapid fire they appear! At times like these, fast questioning can feel truly creative and light us up with energy.
The issue about the pace of our conversation isn’t to always go faster or always go slower – it is rather to find the pace that works for the work we need to do together. If we want to do our best thinking together, it will often help if we slow down the pace of our questions as the work gains in complexity. A slower pace can make any question feel more like an invitation. Likewise, a conversation that moves too slowly can dampen everyone’s thinking. If you find a group sinking into too much complexity, you might benefit from suggesting a lightning round of brainstorming (what we call questionstorming!) to speed up the thinking.
If you need to adjust the pace of a group, ask for members to give feedback about whether a conversation is moving too fast or too slow. Your sensitivity to the desire to optimize the feeling of discovery together will convey empathy to your colleagues and set the stage for people to attune to each other with more care.
How to Practice
Take a look at your calendar and identify three meetings or conversations in the coming week where you can experiment with preambles, tone, and pace.
- For the experiment with preambles, choose a meeting where you may need to set expectations or share your intentions deliberately. Write out a few good preambles you can use to do this with clarity and without taking much time.
- For the experiment with tone, choose a meeting where you suspect time or project pressure may enter into the equation. Write out a few questions that help you adopt a tone of curiosity and humility.
- For the experiment with pace, choose a meeting where you will encounter notable complexity and it would be helpful to slow down, or where you will encounter a need for questionstorming and it would be helpful to speed up. Introduce your experiment with pace at the beginning of the interaction and invite your colleagues to adjust with you when things get too fast or slow down too much.
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