Orchestrating Powerful Conversations: Asking Questions

qmark1If you accept the idea that a meeting leader’s role is to orchestrate the conversation, or to sense and guide, then pay very close attention to what every participant is saying, and what emotions they are expressing. But listen for understanding, not to judge or evaluate what is being said.

As conversation expert Judith Glaser explains in Conversational Intelligence (link is to Amazon.com),

When we listen to connect we open and expand the space, allowing [the speakers’] aspirational [selves] to emerge. [When] we think out loud with them, and share our dreams with them and co-create with them we all experience ourselves in a new way.

Ask penetrating, open-ended questions, and add follow-up questions that extend your understanding. In the back of your mind you might question the validity of a statement, or be upset about a negative tone of voice. But remember that as the meeting leader you want to create an environment where everyone feels safe and free to express themselves, no matter what the content of their message (within the bounds of civility, of course).

Asking the Right Kind of Questions

I’ve become convinced that meaningful conversations start with thoughtful questions. A question signals your interest in learning – your openness to new information and new ideas.

Remember that your role – and your goal – as a conversation leader is to draw out and blend the ideas, insights, and experiences of everyone involved in the conversation. By far the most effective way of achieving that goal is to ask questions that encourage participants to share their insights and ideas, and to respond to their colleagues thoughtfully and respectfully.

There are two basic types of questions: closed-ended and open-ended. Each type has its place in conversations. But they have very different consequences.

A closed-ended question asks for a specific bit of information; it can be answered with a yes or a no, or with a specific piece of information. Yes/no questions are usually requests for information, such as:

  • “Did you finish that report on last month’s budget deficit?”
  • “Have you met the new Regional Sales Director?”
  • “Have you seen our competitor’s new national ad campaign?”

Some closed-ended questions are not yes/no in nature, but they are equally focused on a specific bit of information:

  • “What time are you meeting with Bob tomorrow?”
  • “How much did the XYZ widget sales grow over the last six months?”
  • “How far is Grand Forks from Omaha?”

Those kinds of questions do not typically invite further discussion; they signal a desire for information, not a conversation. In fact, all too often they have the effect, either intentionally or unintentionally, of shutting down either the entire conversation or an individual participant.

In the worst case, closed-ended questions are accompanied by a tone of voice that conveys sarcasm, arrogance, or an emotional message like “I already know the answer to my question; I want to be sure you do too.” Consider questions like these (and imagine you are hearing them in that know-it-all tone of voice):

  • “Did you see the way Bob sneered when he told Jane to get her act together?”
  • “Do you really believe our sales are going to go up by 25 percent in the next two months?”
  • “Do you really think you are the most qualified software engineer in the company?”

In fact, when used this way, a “question” isn’t really a request for information at all; it’s a statement (and usually a negative one at that) masquerading as a question.

In contrast, an open-ended question asks the responder to offer an idea, a hypothesis, or even a guess about the topic, or it requests more detail about something that has already been mentioned.

For instance, if someone has just suggested that the company open a new office in downtown Boise, Idaho, you could respond with a shut-down question by saying something like “Why would we want to do that?” That kind of question isn’t likely to expand the conversation because it’s so obviously a challenge. The unspoken message is something like “You don’t know what you are talking about.”

smiling woman with questions marks above

A more genuine, supportive way of following up on the suggestion about opening that office in Boise might be to ask something like: “What benefits do you see that producing?” That’s an open-ended question in that there are many possible answers (some of which may actually be interesting and new for you).

Open-ended questions that are asked with a sincere interest in the answer serve to:

  • Express respect for the other person (you are presuming that he/she has more useful information).
  • Offer an opportunity for the other person to add more information, thereby enhancing the conversation.
  • Demonstrate your interest in the topic.
  • Convey your desire to keep the conversation going.
  • Stimulate more questions from other participants.

The other advantage of using open-ended questions is that you are putting the responsibility for responding on the person you are directing the question to, but you are doing it in a respectful way that conveys your genuine interest in the response.

Have you seen effective – or ineffective – questions change the tone or outcomes of a meeting you’ve been part of? Share your story here!

This article is excerpted from Chapter Four of Making Meetings Matter. Order a copy today to learn more about how smart leaders orchestrate powerful conversations.

Download a free excerpt from my new book, Making Meetings Matter, right now at this link: http://makingmeetingsmatter.com/chapter_one_excerpt/

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