Why Do Leaders Encourage Questions?
Something we should be asking ourselves
“Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.” — Socrates, c. 430 BC
Did you ever notice how the best leaders ask a lot of questions?
(See what I did there?)
Now, let’s be clear. This isn’t the same thing as the “I’m just asking questions” brigade, who attempt to camouflage their insidious implications as if they’re engaging in some high-minded Socratic discussion.
The seemingly innocent “I’m just asking questions” method is designed to introduce doubt or misinformation, thus keeping their intellectual rudder stuck on a collision course with the shoals of their own worldview.
In contrast, those who ask questions sincerely and openly are attuned to and prepared for whatever responses they receive, allowing the new information to steer them to new shores of knowledge and perspectives.
The Socratic Method
We’ve all heard of the Socratic method. The Athenian philosopher and teacher regarded probity and inquisitiveness as the highest order of virtues.
Socrates engaged in dialogues with his students (we can thank Plato for documenting them), often turning to questions. And some of these categories of questioning are relevant to leaders today.
Leaders who ask questions show that they want to learn more and that they want to help others learn at the same time.
Socratic Questioning For Leaders
Something simple and open-ended can elicit more information. It helps your team think more deeply about what they are asking, and in some cases, it can give them the ability to answer their own question.
Examples of clarifying questions/statements:
“Tell me more.”
“What does this mean?”
“Can you give me an example?”
It’s never easy to rethink our positions. But when faced with gentle questions that test the foundations of an argument, together we might find out more to inform our situation.
“What else could we assume?”
“What would happen if…?”
When your team gives you a rationale for their arguments, there’s an opportunity to explore their reasoning rather than assume it is a given.
“Why is that happening?”
“What evidence is there to support your position?”
Implications and Consequences
When presented with a scenario, plan, or forecast, its helpful to get the team to think through the logical next steps.
“Does the data make sense?”
“How do your assertions fit with the variables [market conditions, competitive landscape, etc.]?”
“What are the consequences of that assumption?”
Reversing the Question
One of the hallmarks of Socratic dialogue is answering a question with a question. This reflexive approach relieves the leader of the responsibility to have all of the answers (we often don’t have the answers) and empowers the team member.
“What do you think it means?”
“Why do you think I asked this question?”
I’ve collected a handful of resources that will help you think about at least 50 questions you could be asking yourself on a regular basis, if you’re interested in improvement.
Questions = Growth
To learn is to grow, and we can’t learn without asking questions.
When leaders are comfortable asking and answering questions, it creates a culture of growth.
Questions are a source of data and information, which we can apply to the problems and challenges at hand. Once we have new information, we are then armed to make important decisions.
Think of the alternative: moving along at the same pace, with no new information and less ability to solve problems, we remain mired in confusion and uncertainty.
Without questions, there is no change.
“I drank what?”
Even at the end of his life, Socrates grappled with conflicting decisions by facing questions. He was found guilty of corrupting the city’s youth and straying from its approved theologies.
In the month between his conviction and execution, he considered the two alternatives, as told in Plato’s Crito: exile or death. But rather than face off in a Q&A session with Crito, Socrates instead has a hypothetical conversation with the Laws of Athens.
The Laws remind Socrates of one of his fundamental ethical principles: “neither to do wrong nor to return a wrong is ever right, not even to injure in return for an injury received.”
And so, they ask Socrates if his escape from prison would harm the Laws and the civic community, imputing that it would be more than civil disobedience; it would be tantamount to destroying the Laws themselves.
And if a city is not faithful to the rule of law — that is, if it allows a prominent individual like Socrates or other aristocrats to violate the law without consequence — it abandons legal principles for favoritism.
Moreover, if Socrates escaped and joined other disobedient criminals in a corrupt city of exiles, Crito wonders if it would be worth it. Socrates answers the question: living as a criminal and with criminals is worse than dying under the rule of law.
When we ask questions, we don’t always get the answers we want or expect.
We owe it to ourselves to listen to those answers with open minds.
And to ask questions in the first place.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
What would you say to a bonus?
The next time you finish a presentation, instead of asking your audience, “Do you have any questions?” instead try asking: “What questions do you have for me?”
It’s much easier eliciting questions from an open-ended question rather than from one for which the answer could easily be “No.”