Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

How to Recapture the Art of Asking Questions

Have you ever noticed how much kids ask questions? No matter where they are, no matter who they’re with, they always seem to find something that they have a question about. This behaviour has been known to be a source of exasperation for parents, if not also the inspiration behind many jokes about parenting and childhood. And yet, when you think about it, it’s understandable why children need to ask so many questions as it’s the way they learn about the world they live in.

Sadly, as we grow up, we start to lose this inquisitiveness and desire to question and understand. As we go through the school system, we begin to refrain from asking questions out of fear that we’ll appear foolish in front of our classmates for not already knowing the answer to what we’re asking. And then, as we move from the education system out into the workforce, we hold back from asking questions thinking that we are somehow expected to already know the answers, this being especially true the higher up the ladder one goes in knowledge-based industries.

As adults, we’ve mistakenly learned to stop asking questions, even though it’s the critical key to opening doors to knowledge, if not wisdom. Through the act of asking questions, we make ourselves look for answers, go down unfamiliar paths that allow us to expose ourselves to new ideas or information. By not accepting that something just is, we force ourselves to understand how come it is and with it, develop a better appreciation for it. Through our inquisitiveness, we nurture our powers of observation, of taking notice of how things are done and pondering the rationale behind it.

So how can we create an environment where our employees feel free to ask questions? Here’s some steps of what you can do –

1. Lead by example
As with any behaviour businesses want to have adopted within their workforce, encouraging others to question has to start at the top before it can work its way into the rest of the organization. It’s a common perception in most companies for leaders to be seen as having all the answers, a notion that can be perpetuated by both the organization’s leadership as well as its employees. By reaching out to your team members in asking them what they think, of whether they see any issues arising from the company’s current direction, it will demonstrate to your employees that your company doesn’t want its workforce to simply maintain the status quo; rather, it’s open to new ideas/solutions that can help improve the business.

Of course, for entrepreneurs and small business owners, this can present a bit of a challenge to have others question how the business they started currently operates. But in these cases, it’s important to recall that the reason you brought in these team members is to help you address some of the challenges your growing company will have in the near future. Asking them for their perspective will help you discover issues that you might not have otherwise been aware of.

2. Focus on initiative and not just on the question
If we remember that one of the reasons why we stopped asking questions as we grew up was because we were afraid of looking silly, it becomes clear that when encouraging employees to ask questions, leaders should focus on the employee’s initiative and not just on the value of their query.

It’s important that leaders understand that many employees might choose to ask ‘safe’ questions – those that don’t challenge or question too much the status quo. By acknowledging and appreciating the interest shown by your employees to question matters, leaders will help provide an atmosphere where employees will feel compelled to bring up other questions that highlight some of the ideas or concerns they might have about the business.

3. Make sure you listen to what’s being asked
This might seem like an obvious step, and yet consider how many interviews or conversations you’ve seen where the person responding to the question failed to answer it. More often than not, it’s not because they didn’t know the answer. Instead, it was a result of their attention being more on what they expected to be asked rather than on what the actual question was. Remember the point in getting your employees to start asking questions is to discover information or insights you hadn’t realized and not simply to reinforce your own perspective.

4. Time and practice are the key
While many of us might have lost the habit of asking questions, this doesn’t mean we’ve lost the ability. As with restoring any desired habit, it’s going to take time and practice to take hold. Also, adding the act of asking questions into your company’s culture will take time as your employees will need to see that this is not merely the latest pet project of management, but a concrete effort to encourage greater participation and involvement of everyone toward how the company operates.

As children, we understood the power of asking questions to help us gain knowledge about our world. Similarly, businesses can use this sense of inquisitiveness to gain unique insights and understandings, information which can help lead to new possibilities for growth and innovation.

So what have you found works for motivating your team to ask more questions? What other measures would you suggest companies implement to make their employees feel more comfortable with asking questions?

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9 Comments » | Tags: , , , , , , | April 26, 2010 by |

9 Comments
  1. On April 26th, 2010 at 9:47 AM Sally G.s said:

    Hi Tanveer! I enjoyed reading this post – society seems to be slipping more and more into 'surface skimming' with little time and attention being devoted to 'going deep'.

    Curiosity seems to get dismantled as we grow up, as you noted. Questions start getting asked for counter-productive reasons (the optics of appearing interested, showing off how much you actually know, etc.) and the true desire to learn takes a back-seat to doing the best you can to get by.

    This is not true for everyone, of course. I do agree that re-stimulating the art of asking questions for the purpose of better comprehension and enriched end-products/end-goals would benefit our society as a whole.

    People ask more questions when they're motivated to learn – and they feel invested in learning. Performance evaluations that hold space to recognize an employee's desire to improve a process, system or service by understanding it more deeply and questioning their way to an effective new method, practice or procedure would help.

    Encouraging the breakdown of silos so that various departmental teams within an organization ask the questions necessary to promote more efficient operations and more effective synergy and collaboration amongst themselves and customers would be of value too.

  2. On April 26th, 2010 at 4:49 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    @Dorothy – Thanks Dorothy; glad you enjoyed this piece. You’re right that we never lose our ability to question; in fact, I’d say it’s much like getting back on a bicycle after many years – at first, you might be afraid to fall, but in short time, it’s like you never stopped. It’s interesting that you refer to asking the “right question” as that’s something I’m planning on discussing in my next piece.

    @Frank – Ah, kids. It’s truly amazing how much they want to know about everything. I think it’s great to also show children that as parents, or in your case grandparents, we don’t have all the answers because that’s a valuable lesson that will help them understand the true value of asking questions, if not also understanding that we all have limits to our knowledge.

    And you’re right that in encouraging employees to ask questions, you foster a sense of being a part of a team as the employee’s role shifts from being simply a cog in the wheel to being someone who’s equally committed and vested in the success of the endeavour because what they have to say, or ask, bears merit.

    Thanks again for the kind words, Frank. Appreciate hearing that this piece has got you thinking more about this topic.

    @Sally – Thanks Sally for the great comment. I agree that there’s a tendency that when questions are asked, the scope of them are rather limited and in some cases, self-serving. However, in this current climate emphasizing the need for innovative growth and development, companies will need to shift to asking questions that encourages both greater involvement of their workforce, as well as offering differing perspectives on the company’s approaches or directives.

    Thanks again Dorothy, Frank, and Sally for taking the time to share your thoughts on this piece and providing some interesting points for discussion.

  3. On April 26th, 2010 at 1:04 PM Dorothy Dalton said:

    Tanveer – excellent thoughts. I think we do not necessarily lose the ability to ask questions, but the ability to ask the right questions, in the right way, so that people actually hear us openly. And of course listening to the responses is paramount!

    Great reminder!

  4. On April 26th, 2010 at 1:04 PM Frank Dickinson said:

    Insightful post Tanveer. With a three year old grandson staying with us right now, we are surrounded by a sea of questions.

    Reflecting on your post, while it is frustrating at times to be able to answer all the little guys questions, I’m thinking it would be even more frustrating in the workplace if no one asked any questions.

    Fortunatley, when I worked for American Water Company – a HUGE international company, we were encouraged from top down to ask questions regarding our jobs and the oberall direction of the company.

    It led to an atmosphere of “team”. It also added an air of consideration.

    Still pondering – excellent stuff!

  5. On April 26th, 2010 at 7:43 PM Kelly Ketelboeter said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    Another thought provoking post! Asking questions is an art not a science. Which may be why some leaders struggle to ask more questions. I have found that leaders and employees both get fixated on asking the right question that sometimes it paralyzes them. There is no right or wrong question to ask, if it's a question you have. The key is asking open-ended questions to create a dialog. This means asking, listening, asking some more and listening even more. You can't script it and it won't always be perfect.

    It still amazes me today the response I get when testing 2 questions in a training session. When I come to close in a topic, activity or discussion I have asked, "are there any questions?" I never get a question or a response. Yet when I ask, "what questions do you have?" I almost always get a question or comment. Just changing the question slightly enhances participation. What questions do you have, implies the meaning, it's okay to have and to ask a question. Versus, are there any questions, which essentially says I really don't care.

    I also see value in asking questions not only from a leader and employee engagement stand point but also as a critical avenue to build relationships with an organizations customers.

    Thanks for reminding us how important it is to encourage and ask questions.

    Cheers!

    Kelly

  6. On April 26th, 2010 at 10:12 PM Megan Zuniga said:

    Where I work from, we’re encourage to ask questions. A lot of miscommunication happens when we’re afraid to ask questions. I think some companies are now realizing/adapting to a new work system where employees can have input on how the business is run. I read on it here (Creating a Culture of Collaborative Leadership) and I wasn’t really aware it was happening. A workplace where employees and supervisors collaborate for the good of the company. If more companies were like employees would be happier to work for them. So far, I’ve only seen this in small businesses.
    Also another positive thing about asking questions is you’re nurturing your desire to learn new things, new ideas. And we all know that once we stopped learning, we stop living.

  7. On April 27th, 2010 at 4:29 AM Jim Matorin said:

    It is amazing how few people when engaging fail to ask questions or if they do, fail to listen to the answer since they are off and running onsomething else. Asking questions is an art form. So is answering questions. Drives me nuts when I hear someone asked a question in a meeting or on a panel and they fail to answer the question properly. One thing I have learned when someone asks me a question is I stop, paraphrased the question so: A.) I slow down before firing off an answer; and B.) Validate that I fielded the question correctly.

    Thank you for addressing this topic. Relevant to our day to day engagement.

  8. On April 27th, 2010 at 1:07 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    @Megan – Sounds like your company truly understands the value of asking questions. The ability to ask questions definitely will help in avoiding misunderstandings at work, as well as fostering a place where people are encouraged to learn and grow. And you’re right that in a workplace that welcomes questions will certainly lead to a more collaborative environment. Thanks Megan for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

    @Kelly – Thanks Kelly; I appreciate that. You bring up an excellent point about the nature of what we ask as a question, something that is equally important to reaping the benefits from asking questions. In fact, that’s the basis of my next piece which will be focused at leaders and managers on learning about the importance of how we phrase the questions we ask to our employees. Based on your comment, I think it’s a piece that you will enjoy.

    And thanks again, Kelly, for adding your insights and experiences to this discussion.

    @Jim – That’s an excellent point you bring up, Jim of paraphrasing the question to make sure you understood what’s being asked. This offers two valuable points – first, it allows you to show the person asking the question that you’re not only listening to what they are asking, but that you value their query and want to make sure you offer the information they are looking for. Second, by paraphrasing the question, your taking the time to process the question and as such, your response will not be something fired off like you’re on a game show; rather, your response will be one that demonstrates some reflection to determine what information would best serve in answering the question.

    Thanks for sharing that exercise you do, Jim. I’m sure many of my readers will find value in using it as well.

  9. On July 16th, 2012 at 6:42 AM Jan Mar k de Villa said:

    You are perfectly right Tanveer. I have long ago learned that listening is key to understanding the other person's needs. This also includes knowing what questions we needed to ask. Having these knowledge helps us to be offer relevant product and services to each person.

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