by Steve Adubato, PhD

Often great leadership comes down to asking great questions. When things go wrong in our organizations, some of us ask questions like “Who screwed this up?” or “What could you possibly have been thinking when you did that?” To be clear, I’m a big advocate of confronting situations head-on —dealing with things before they get worse. How leaders go about confronting is key to what happens next and, ultimately, how difficult situations are resolved—or not. Why not be a leader who sees every situation or circumstance as an opportunity to learn not only what happened but why it happened and who tries to understand what the best options are in order to move forward in a positive way. Following are a few tips for asking really good questions that should prove helpful:

--Make sure your questions are clear and easy to understand. Sounds simple, right? Then why is it that too often, people will ask a question and you have no idea what they want to find out? Before you ask a question, make sure you know why you are asking it – consider the information you are seeking – and then be clear and concise.

--Direct your questions to a particular person. You are more likely to get a direct response. Questions asked of a particular person are more effective than simply asking a generic question of an entire group. Often, when questions are asked of an entire group, people are reluctant to be the first to speak up. Also, it makes it easier for audience members to hide and not participate.

--Ask one question at a time. Don’t you hate those multi-part questions? How do you know which part you are supposed to answer first? Do you ever find that you can’t remember what the first part was? Ask one question, on one subject, to one person and you’ll get better results.

--Follow up on a previous question that has been answered. Something like, “Jane, how does your answer compare with what Jim said on this subject earlier in the meeting?” Another effective follow-up is a short encouraging comment after someone has responded to an initial question, like “How so?” or “For example . . . ?”

--Don’t be unnecessarily combative, unless you have a good reason for doing so. Avoid questions like “Why is it that you never seem to get it right, Bob?” If you are looking to scare the heck out of Bob or let him know he is about to be fired, you’ve succeeded. Questions like this can cause real problems.

So the next time someone makes a comment that rubs you the wrong way, or something gets screwed up—which it inevitably will—fight the urge to ask a combative, negative, and judging question like “What’s wrong with you?” or “How could you say that?” Go in a different, more constructive direction in an effort to learn more and ask “Tell me, why do you see it that way?” or “What can I do to move things forward?” You will be amazed at the reaction you get using this simple but powerful leadership, and frankly human, approach that revolves, not around answers, but once again around asking the right questions, in the right way, for the right reasons.

Ken Schlager, Editor, New Jersey Monthly, discusses the art of asking questions as a tool for handling confrontation.