Ask without telling, the art of asking questions

To make good questions and help your team to develop their problem-solving skills, you need to know how to ask without telling.

One thing that everybody does every day is asking questions.  We ask questions to learn, clarify doubts, or obtain information.  As a leader, you ask questions to learn about a situation.  Also, you make questions to guide your team on their learning process.  However, are you asking or disguising your solutions as questions?  To promote a learning environment, leaders need to ask without telling.

Sometimes a leader needs to tell

Leaders have the responsibility to communicate, set direction, and provide a purpose.  To accomplish them, they tell information and share news or concerns with their team.  Moreover, there are times when they need to set direction.  Sometimes, there is a need to change a strategy or adjust a plan.  When that happens, the leader tells the group what the change is and why it is needed.  Also, how it will affect them and the new expectations.  During these situations, telling is the right thing to do.

Another responsibility of leadership is to teach and coach their team.   The objective is to transfer knowledge and create capabilities.  While facilitating the learning process, leaders tell new information.

Finally, sometimes leaders need to advise people.  It is common to share previous experiences or tell a story to illustrate a point.  If that is the case, say what you are trying to do, do not hide it behind questions.  The best leaders are humble and compassionate.  There is nothing wrong with showing your humanity by using past experiences to illustrate a point.

Why do you need to ask without telling?

A servant leader’s job is to develop more leaders by teaching, motivating, facilitating, and supporting the team.  By asking questions without telling, they promote learning.  Also, their team’s confidence in their ability to solve problems and create more value grows.  As their confidence grows, their participation in the improvement process grows as well. 

A critical step to change the culture is to empower the people.  While asking questions with respect, leaders guide them to find answers by themselves.  By allowing people to use their brains and participate in the daily management processes and innovation, they feel more engaged with their work and happier when they come back home.  

How can you ask without telling?  How to ask better questions?

When you ask questions that people can answer with a simple yes or no, they don’t put too much effort. Closed questions do not lead to engagement or promote thinking.  When you don’t receive answers, the next thing you do is telling people what to do.  On the other hand, with open questions, people need to think.  Use the 5W and 1H to ask questions.  That is, reframe your questions using who, what, where, when, why, and how.

To keep the brain’s wheels turning, ask one question at a time and give people time to think.  In general, we are not comfortable with silence.  Therefore, right after asking something, people jump to tell their answer.  To be successful in asking without telling, you will need to become comfortable with silence.

Sometimes it is easier to ask closed questions.  Therefore, you would need to stop and think about how to reframe it as an open question.  There are two questions that I used often.  The first one is, what makes you think that way? or ” What do you think we can do differently?”  The second question I often used is, “How do you think we can accomplish that? 

Ask without telling that is what we should do.

Contrary to common perception, leaders are not supposed to have all the answers.  However, very often, they have ideas or solutions to share with the team.  During those times, tell the group that you want to share something with them.  You can always tell people, here is a suggestion and then ask how they can improve it.  Do not hide answers using questions.  Let people think, promote learning and problem-solving skills.

By telling, leadership is not fulfilling their responsibility of teaching and coaching.  Once again, this is a stop-and-think situation.  Think about your idea, do you have any doubts about it?  What parts of it need fine-tuning?  Use your doubts or unknown parts to ask open questions.

A continuous improvement culture seeks to foster a learning environment.  Servant leaders teach, motivate, facilitate, and support their teams.  Show them that you care by helping them to develop their skills and grow.  Learning how to ask questions without telling is a way to achieve that.

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