Strategic questioning is the skill of asking questions that will make a difference. It is a tool for change – it changes both the questioner and the respondent and as a result creates change in one’s life at personal and social level as well as at the work place. Such questioning uses the techniques of Socratic questions for analysis, focusing, creating options and encouraging movement in the respondent.
Good strategic questions are those which energise people, while poor questions, on the other hand, drain energy out of people. The questions that we ask should elicit curiosity and get the respondent to think, discover their own answers and develop self responsibility and thus ownership of results. These are empowering questions and usually are open ended and do not lead the respondent, instead enable him to think for himself and carry out deep reflection. Disempowering questions are the opposite – they do not encourage thinking or discovery or ownership of results. Instead they are judgmental, tend to pass on blame, give directions and confuse and irritate the respondent.
In order to ask good questions we need to acquire tools of strategic questioning. By applying Socratic style of questioning in any situation, we will be able to determine which system of thought is necessary and analyse the issues involved, by breaking them into parts and gathering more information on the thought, in terms of goals and purpose, the assumptions made, information that we have and may further need, clarity in thought, depth and breadth of exploring necessary etc. The line of questioning will be such that the respondent-cum-thinker becomes more curious and is energized to pursue the thought process till a solution or a decision or action plan is arrived at.
One of the common mistakes made by the questioner is to use a set of standard questions for all situations. A far better and authentic approach will be to ask questions relevant to the situation in hand and to the way the discussion is moving. For this, an associated tool of the art of active listening is essential. To listen intently, to pause to allow the mind to process thought and then to ask the relevant question, is an art which comes out of continuous practice. It is not easy to be good at asking strategic questions; it comes out of a non-judgmental and curious frame of mind, supported by active mindful listening. We need to overcome our fear of exposing ourselves, such as, by asking even one that, we suspect, could be a silly question. We need to take the risk and train ourselves rigorously through continuous practice of asking good questions along with active and powerful listening.
Creating a learning culture
One of the characteristics of adopting a curious lifestyle is that I am then willing to admit that “I don’t know” and consequently I will always be in a learning frame of mind. Whomsoever I am dealing with, whether at work or at home or in social gatherings, I will be able to admit that I will be learning from that interaction. There is so much to learn in this life about nature, about science, about philosophy and most importantly about people and human behavior that even after adopting a learning lifestyle, I will not be able to exhaust my learning potential in a life time.
By the sheer act of asking questions, I end up encouraging others to ask questions too. An atmosphere of curiosity and learning is then created – whether at home or at workplace. At home young children will not be afraid of reprimand, when they ask questions and will get encouraged to explore new avenues for solving problems. In the work situation, the culture of questions will improve problem solving and decision making skills. It will encourage openness to questions and will therefore show greater adaptability to change. The emphasis in a learning culture will need to be on the process of asking questions and of searching for answers, rather than on finding the “right” answer.
A questioning culture will energise the whole organization and transform it into a learning organization with high energy levels, creativity in finding solutions, motivated and empowered employees having stronger teamwork.
One of the most difficult jobs in the world today is parenting – to raise kids and help them develop into healthy, both physically and emotionally, and happy adults. Using the art of questioning and creating a culture of curiosity in the family will be very useful in parenting.
A child is always very curious and is constantly asking his parents questions after questions, to such an extent that the parents start to discourage this activity. Instead the kid needs encouragement to enable him to lead a questioning lifestyle right from childhood, and while doing so and feeding his curiosity, a few good questions should also be thrown back at him to initiate the process of critical, analytical and creative thinking from childhood.
A teenager or a young adult is a difficult age group to handle for most parents. They get rebellious, seem to have firm opinion/beliefs on everything and yet mostly unsure of what they wish to do. They feel they need guidance but will be too proud to ask and will also show defiance when “told”. For this group, the right approach will be to treat these grown-up kids as full-fledged adults and to use good empowering questions. This treatment like adults will make them feel good and encourage them to think for themselves in a critical manner and find their own solutions or make judgments.
A person who has the benefit of growing up in such a curious and learning environment at home and at school will acquire the attributes of open mindedness, high aptitude of self-reflection and self awareness, self-confidence, flexibility, ability to embrace change and commitment to learn and develop oneself continuously.
Changing organizational culture
Creating a questioning and learning culture in a workplace among its team members will require a change from the traditional corporate culture. Some of the strategies that will help to build such a learning culture are –
- Initiating a change in value systems of the organisation to connect to use of strategic questions regularly. The process must start from the top management – the senior executives need to play the role model by frequently asking good questions and thus co-creating a culture of questions.
- The new environment should encourage team members to ask questions freely, challenge status quo, take risks, question the underlying assumptions and thus accept change
- The use of strategic questions should be made an inherent part of all critical business processes and decision making systems.
- Training of team members in the skills of asking strategic questions and in the prerequisite skill of active listening will be necessary. This should be backed up with a reward and recognition system to promote good listening and questioning skills.
It will not be easy to bring in such a change in culture in an organisation. Firstly the leader himself will face difficulties in (a) changing himself and his own approach to questioning, given his own track record of success through “telling”, (b) developing his own skills in this respect, (c) willing to be vulnerable through asking questions and admitting ‘not knowing’ and (d) dealing with the time pressures given the general rush and time constraint in the corporate atmosphere. Secondly he will face resistance from his own team members who have become “answer dependent” and who find difficulty to adjust to and trust the new environment of questions along with the need to think for themselves. Resistance will also come from other managers/leaders who suffer from “telling dependency” and are uncomfortable with the apparent loss of power that comes from knowing and giving answers.
To deal with these difficulties and resistances, the leader will need to adopt a slower change process rather than an abrupt change in style, as well as communicate to his team members of this new style and the potential benefits thereof. The art of strategic questioning and an innate desire to learn will help the team appreciate and accept the change.