Part 1 of 5 on the Power of Asking Questions
Without questions, meetings rapidly degenerate into posturing and positioning. One point of view is countered by another point of view. Sometimes the points are in opposition; sometimes they are points about completely different tracks that never come together.
To come to some kind of shared understanding and agreement that endures longer than the life of the meeting, posturing doesn’t help. Someone makes a point; some people nod with agreement, and maybe they agree, maybe they disagree, but you won’t find out what they really think in the meeting. Some people just keep their mouths shut, keeping their opinions to themselves. When people walk out of meetings shaking their heads, the lack of agreement is tangible. Sometimes the lack of agreement shows up at the water cooler.
Where it shows up and really hurts is when a group has important work to do that requires collaboration and everyone has a good opinion, but no one is asking questions like:
All the opinions can be intimidating, especially when people with power have strong points of view and don’t understand that they also need to listen to get a different perspective on things.
I have worked with teams that argue their way to missed deadlines, overrun budgets, and team conflict. All the finger-pointing in the world can’t dig some groups out of the hole they are digging themselves by not seeking agreement, but by plowing ahead with multiple disagreeing points of view without asking questions that help to move a group closer to shared understanding. One team I knew with critical responsibility for developing software that was essential for the next generation of products disagreed their way to failure.
It is easy to point fingers; it is easy to believe in your own rightness and to get mad at the people who disagree. But when we have complex work to do and we really need to understand how to accomplish it, if we don’t ask questions, we don’t go in the same direction.
Is it important to go in the same direction? Silly question. In this age of “doing more with less,” the “new normal,” has us stretched pretty thin. Being courageous enough to ask a question to help people understand things the same way is important for creating alignment. Without it, it’s just another lousy meeting. We leave the meeting and do workarounds as best we can, trying to do what we think is needed from the best knowledge and understanding we have.
We all have good intentions. We all have good opinions. What we need to develop is the ability to ask the questions that move us and others toward shared understanding. When our collective intelligence gets cooking, no feat is too challenging. When our intelligence is isolated in our own heads that are full of opinions, the group’s IQ plummets.
Many of us have battle scars from trying to help groups be productive and work together better. Questions work most of the time; but every situation and group is different. Complexities abound. Without good questions, the complexities become disjointed. When questions open the space up for listening, the multiplicity of viewpoints alive in each moment can begin to sparkle and gain a laser focus.
Ask a question. Make it simple. Seek to understand, not to make a point. See what happens. Tell me how it goes.