by Steve Adubato, PhD

Questions, if strategically used, can be a powerful communication tool in a variety of business settings including negotiations, conflict resolution, sales presentations, and meetings with difficult employees.

In her book, “Change Your Questions, Change Your Life,” Dr. Marilee Adams makes a clear distinction between questions that she calls “judging questions” as opposed to “learning questions”. Dr. Adams argues that in virtually any situation—in business or in life—we come to a fork in the road and have a choice we can make. How we choose to see the situation often dictates the questions we ask, which will then impact the conversation and communication that follows. In turn, this will affect our relationship with the other party involved.

Consider this simple, but all too common, example. In your business operation, one of your key team members makes what you consider to be a silly mistake that you find frustrating. You are angry and want to know why the mistake was made. Consider the type of questions you can ask. The more judgmental question is, “What’s wrong with you, Mary? Why couldn't you get this simple task right?” What’s the likely reaction you are going to get from Mary? Defensiveness, silence, embarrassment, and even resentment. The question you asked as a manager is understandable. You don’t know why Mary made the mistake, but frankly, neither does Mary. Further, she is so embarrassed by the fact that you are judging her in the way you are asking the question that you have very little ability to find out what went wrong, how you could fix it, and how to prevent it from happening again.

The other path of questioning, in which you want to learn why things went wrong, would sound very different: “Mary, you are one of the best people on our team. Help me understand what you were thinking when you decided to do XYZ?” Now assume Mary is silent at first. If you are truly looking to better understand and learn, you would follow up with, “Mary, I just want to understand what went wrong so we can avoid it in the future.” Your goal is to get Mary to open up. Sure, it takes more time and patience, and it is challenging for those of us who are more impatient as leaders. However, our goal should be to move forward.

For me, one of the most frustrating things as an entrepreneur running a company is when people on our team won’t or can’t acknowledge that they made a mistake. The more they resist, the harder I push. But the harder I push, the more silent they can become. After re-reading Dr. Adams’ book and taking a hard look at the judging versus learning questions, I’ve come to realize that too often my questions are perceived to be judgmental. It may not be my intent, and it may not be your intent, but when it comes to communication, the message sent is often the message NOT received. Further, it is the responsibility of the message sender to change the tone and tenor of the message so that it is received in a fashion that achieves the outcome you seek.

For those of us in leadership positions, we need to take a harder look at the types of questions we ask of team members, clients, prospects, and other key stakeholders. Instead of judging with our questions, we should seek to ask questions that help us learn. The goal is to get the other person talking. And the more that person perceives that we are open to knowing and less interested in judging, the more they are willing to talk and communicate. Think about it. It is a powerful lesson that I am still learning.