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Asking Questions Makes You A Better Leader, Not A Dumb One

As children, we were always curious to know more. We were never afraid of asking questions because there was no fear of being judged or seen as incompetent. However, as we grew up, most of us lost this skilful art. According to the Harvard Business Review, adults with children estimated that around 70-80% of their children’s conversations were made up of questions. In adults, questions only make up for 15-25% of our conversations. When we got older, the focus of asking questions was moved to answering the questions. Be it in classrooms or in exams, answering questions became the benchmark of knowledge and intelligence. Or so we thought. 

“Being willing to ask “dumb” questions is, ironically, one of the smartest things you can do,” says Allen Gannet, author of The Creative Curve. Unlike what most think, asking questions doesn’t dumb you down. Actually, it does quite the opposite by boosting your learning and development. Asking questions comes with a whole list of benefits including exchanging ideas, fostering creativity and building trust within a team. Additionally, it helps reduce corporate risk by revealing hidden traps and dangers. Sometimes we don’t realise that asking the ‘why’ behind something can help us build a strategic business framework.

For some, questions come easy especially when they are taught to ask questions in their professions such as doctors, journalists or litigators. For others, questioning is a hard task but it’s still an important skill to have. We’ll dive into the many benefits of asking questions and how you can be a pro at asking questions as well.

Why is it Important to Ask Questions?

People hold back on asking questions because they might feel the need to impress others and asking questions can come across as incompetent. On the flip side, some may feel overconfident that they have the answers for everything and therefore, do not need to ask questions at all. Before we cover the ways to ask good questions, here are some reasons why asking questions is a step towards your professional development and personal success. 

Asking questions helps develop emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions in others. By asking questions and understanding others’ perspectives, you begin to empathise with them. As you build your emotional intelligence, you also improve your social abilities. This includes honing the qualities needed to develop leadership skills such as leading with empathy and love. 

Asking questions encourages a positive work environment

Jumping to conclusions is usually caused by not asking questions to consider the context. This is especially dangerous in the workplace and can cause conflicts between team members when communication isn’t a two-way street. By asking questions to understand the situation, teams can improve decision-making and also encourage a work culture that is open to sharing ideas. New ideas and innovation are brought through healthy discussions and asking questions is just the start of creating productive collaborations. 

Asking questions is the first base of building relationships

Since asking questions creates empathy to understand others better, it also builds stronger relationships at the same time. Strong relationships are key to high-performing teams and asking each other questions can make individuals more likeable as you learn more about your team members. 

“He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” ~ Chinese Proverb

How to Become Amazingly Good at Asking Questions?

There are a few tips in this section that teach you how to ask good questions but the foundation to be successful in all of these tips is improving listening skills. As Dale Carnegie said in his 1936 classic, ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, “Be a good Listener. Ask questions that others will enjoy answering.” With that in mind, here are some things to take note of when asking questions. 

Follow-up questions hold special power

Most questions can be divided into four categories: 

  • Introductory questions: the ones that set the stage for the conversation 
  • Mirror questions: questions that redirect the same question asked (eg. “I’m fine. How are you?)
  • Full-switch questions: questions that change the topic of the conversation entirely 
  • Follow-up questions: questions that dig deeper into the conversation and ask for more information

Follow-up questions are especially powerful as it shows your conversation partner that you are listening to them and have not lost interest in what they are saying. Showing attention when one is speaking makes them feel respected and also encourages trust building in teams. Fortunately, follow-up questions usually come naturally to us so it isn’t something you have to crack your brains for.

Seeking out information is something leaders have to do almost every day. Whether it’s asking your team about updates or negotiating a difficult business case with a client, follow-up questions will give you the insight you need to understand challenges better and come up with viable solutions for them. Digging deep into the root causes of these problems is an easy and fuss-free way of handling conflicts in the workplace. 

INSIDER INFO: Our trust building workshop equips you with key questions that improve communication with your team or client so you don’t land yourself in conflicts. 

Setting the tone of the conversation

People are more likely to share information openly when you approach them with a casual tone instead of a formal one. This was proven in a study where sensitive questions were asked on two different sites. One site’s interface was more fun and relaxed while the other was corporate and serious. The study showed that participants were more likely to share sensitive information with the casual site instead of the formal one. Similarly, when trying to get others to open up to you, don’t approach them like it’s a business meeting. Instead, relax and be warm towards them to make them feel comfortable in your presence.

Know when you should ask open-ended questions

‘Yes’ or ‘no’ questions tend to result in dead-end answers. These kinds of questions leave you with little information to go on. Instead, ask open-ended questions that require more elaboration. Open-ended questions help you get more insight and discover solutions you never considered, However, that doesn’t mean that you should only ever ask open-ended questions because this may vary depending on the situation you are in. For example, in some tense negotiations where information is deliberately kept under wraps, asking open-ended questions may make some clients uncomfortable or annoyed. In such cases, asking closed-ended questions may be the way to go. 

Getting the right sequence

Asking tough questions first can sometimes make people more willing to open up. Of course, you run the danger of offending others if your initial query is overly delicate which is why it’s a fine line to walk. The opposing strategy—beginning with less sensitive questions and escalating gradually—seems to be more successful if the objective is to forge relationships. 

A study that went viral paired some strangers up and gave them a list of questions to ask each other starting from more superficial questions to deeper, personal questions like “What is your biggest regret?” At the same time, another group of pairs were asked to interact with each other as usual. The study showed that the pairs who asked questions with increasing depth liked each other more and built a stronger connection compared to the other group. 

Do not Interrupt

Don’t interrupt someone in a conversation. For better conversation skills, use the power of silence, wait for them to complete what they are saying and then follow up with your next question. Interrupting can negatively impact the conversation. Firstly, it signals that you don’t value their viewpoint and secondly, when you interrupt in between a conversation, you break the natural flow of it. 

Of course, you must interrupt if time is of the essence and the speaker has veered off the subject. When doing it, try to be as courteous as you can.

Question Responsibly

If we acknowledge that even framing an idea as a question may come across as interrogative, it seems sensible to advise that we should endeavour to question appropriately.

What exactly does “responsible questioning” entail? When you ask difficult, sceptical questions, you should constantly strive to do so with an open mind, a healthy regard for facts, and concern for other people’s feelings.

Good Leaders Ask Good Questions

Leaders assume that their team members look to them for answers and this is what builds confidence in them. However, this just affects trust building in teams because a leader who thinks they know it all is probably clueless about what is going on around them. Especially when our world is constantly changing, no one knows it all! A leader’s ignorance will lead to a team losing trust in them and probably reducing communication because their leader no longer benefits them.

Instead, leaders need to realise that they don’t know everything and they don’t have to know everything but asking questions is a good start. In the beginning, you may be hesitant to show the vulnerability of not knowing everything but vulnerability is a way of building trust. You may be fearful of getting criticised when asking questions as a leader but studies show that asking for help is a way to show that you trust your team, which will also be reciprocated. It’s okay to ask questions as a leader so here are some tips on how you can ask good questions.

Focus on asking big questions

The questions you ask should encourage collaboration and bring heads together to brainstorm the next course of action. Rather than focusing on past issues, pivot the questions around what needs to be addressed for the future. These questions reflect your ambition for the organisation and bring about great ideas that will benefit your team and business. Asking the big question is a win-win for both you and your organisation.  

Involving others

Asking questions doesn’t stop at collaboration within your team. To make the most out of a situation, reach out beyond your organisation. For example, ask questions to your clients or customer base to understand their problems or obstacles. Knowing their pain points will help you solve these issues better while building trust between you and your consumers. 

Changing the culture

In tumultuous times, anxiety is at an all-time high and asking questions can help your team overcome some of their fears. Just like how group therapy is proven to lessen anxiety by socialising with others, asking questions that ease overwhelming emotions can improve the psychological safety of the workplace as well as the well-being of your team. So if any of your team members seem to be struggling with their emotions, talk it out with them by asking the questions that can soothe their anxieties and make them feel better. 

Becoming a better leader comes with asking questions. So, it’s time to put aside the inaccurate myths you thought were true and just ask away!


1. Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

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