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Leading by Questions: Just Ask

By Leah Lundquist

This post was originally published at the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network-Twin Cities.

So you made it through the first month of the New Year! How are those professional goals of yours going? Over the course of January, I've felt a new goal emerging - one that seems so simple on the surface yet has been really challenging to put into practice.

I'm trying to ask more questions.

Easy enough if I was just letting myself throw out more of the typical: "How's it going?" "How about all this snow?" No, I'm trying to find fresh questions - questions that have the power to move myself and those around me beyond chit chat or same-old, same-old to action in a new way.

I doubt this is the first time you've read or heard something on the "art of questioning." In every "managing from the middle" conference session or workshop I've attended, I've been told that the key to developing and exercising leadership with relatively low positional-power is to ask questions of your superiors that will help you grasp the high-level issues of strategy, politics, and vision within your organization.

But asking questions to learn is different than asking questions to lead. And asking questions to lead is a powerful tool indeed.

Just put yourself on both sides of the situation for a moment. Think about the last time you were in a situation in which you were managed. Would you rather have been asked how something should be done or told how it should be done? Now think of a situation in which you were leading or managing. Did you spend the majority of your time asking questions of those around you or making statements? If you said asking questions, then, congratulations! You can probably stop reading. If you're like the majority of the population, you should probably keep reading.

If questions - particularly questions that dive deep - are so important, why do we neglect to ask them?

It definitely has to do at least partially with how we're taught in an education system that rewards knowing the answer. I also believe it comes down to the fear of making ourselves vulnerable. I often find myself afraid of looking like I don't know - particularly as a young professional. We're trying to make ourselves legit in the eyes of those who have more experience in the field but could benefit from our creativity and fresh ideas. By asking questions, we make ourselves vulnerable to judgment or, worse yet, written off entirely. I would argue that this is a risk worth taking.

Questioning Yourself
Questions are just as important for self-reflection as for eliciting thoughts or information from others. At the end of 2010, I caught wind of the Reverb community - "an annual event and online initiative to reflect on your year and manifest what's next." The great women who started Reverb email out prompts each month, encouraging folks to choose whatever method suites them best to reflect on the prompt ("Write, blog, photograph, draw or respond however you'd like. Tag on Twitter or Flickr with the hashtag "#reverb11" to share with others!")

I was pretty excited after starting this blog post to see that this month's prompt was all about questions!

"One month into 2011, what question(s) are you living? Are there any prompts/questions that arose during #reverb10 that are still resonating in your life? Are you living new questions?"

I find these prompts from Reverb to be a great reminder to slow down and ask myself questions that go beyond "What am I going to eat for dinner?"

Questioning Others & Being Questioned
As a participant in a Leadership Institute recently, I was introduced to the Quaker concept of a "Clearness Committee" promoted by Parker Palmer (founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal). The assumption underlying this activity is that an individual can reach a better self-awareness by responding to questions than receiving advice from others. In practice, it has one key rule - "members are forbidden to speak to the focus person in any way except to ask honest, open questions." It feels totally foreign - trying to formulate questions instead of opinions to help another person who is facing a dilemma or decision. But when I was the one being questioned in this situation, I attest that I came to a much truer clarity by hearing myself respond to their great, probing questions than I would've if the others in the group had been advising me in one direction or another.

I think this "Clearness Committee" concept can be a great guiding framework to bring to a coaching circle of peers (which is a great idea in itself!).

Resources to Help

How can we develop our ability to ask powerful questions? Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there to help!

The Art of Powerful Questions by Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs
Good Questions from The Art of Hosting
Tenneson Woolf post on "Questions Café"

My fellow YNPN-TC board member, Cat Beltmann, has blogged about YNPN-TC's use of the world café model to evoke meaningful conversation at our Emerging Leader Network lunches. There are lots of other techniques for effective facilitation focused around questioning including appreciative inquiry, circle practice, and open space technology. The Art of Hosting has rolled up all these facilitation methods into one comprehensive practice. Our world is facing complex issues that demand uncommon conversations. I believe it's going to be up to our generation of the workforce to figure out how to facilitate question-ful conversations.

What do the experts have to say about it?

"What is the real work of leaders? Providing all the right answers? No. It's providing all the right questions." - Ronald A. Heifitz and Donald Laurie, The Work of Leadership

"Leadership is about allowing others the chance to flourish. And you do that by asking questions." - Gary Cohen, Just Ask Leadership and blog

"If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes." -Albert Einstein

Do you have a favorite question to ask in interviews, networking, informational interviews, the board room, or other spaces of your professional life? Do you have a favorite question to ask yourself during self-reflection? Do you know of any great resources around the art of questioning? Leave a comment! (or better yet, a question!)

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