Is Asking Questions Motivational--or Just Plain Irritating?

It's OK to ask questions. But be careful not to step on any toes in the process.

By Alex Hiam

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

How a leader uses questions is an important thing--for questionsare very powerful and can be seen as critical or confrontational ifthey are not phrased and delivered just right. A good leadercertainly tries to ask a lot of questions. But sometimes aninterest in the facts and a desire to draw out ideas from otherscan raise defenses and anger others.

Here's an interesting example. Lawrence H. Summers took overthe presidency of Harvard University in mid-2001 and immediatelybegan to attract negative publicity and to anger some of thefaculty and staff. One highly publicized rift was with famousscholar William Julius Wilson, who threatened to move to Princetonafter an angry meeting with his new boss. Wilson was later quotedby The New York Times as saying "his behavior has beenquite shocking."

A surefire way to learn the value of listening: Give the incessantchatter a break. Read "Shut Up,Already!"

Yet Summers had no intention of shocking anyone and was quick towork on patching up this and other early rifts. What had happenedto create the widespread impression that this leader was difficultto work with and unwilling to listen to his people? He certainlyvalues listening and wants good communications--he even maintainsregular office hours during which students can come speak with himwithout an appointment, a far more open-door policy than mostexecutives. Like many leaders, Summers may have found that his veryposition of power makes it difficult to appear truly open andinterested as he interacts with his people.

And paradoxically, it may have been Summers' use ofquestions--a widely prescribed listening tool--thatcontributed most to his reputation as a poor listener. "If youhave a short time with him, it's not too encouraging if thewhole time he spends a lot of time challenging your views, eventhough he may not really believe that," said Trevor Cox,president of Phillips Brooks House, Harvard's umbrellacommunity service group, in The New York Times article.Summers quickly built a reputation of asking blunt and oftenalarming (to the listeners at least) questions in meetings.

In response, Summers explained: "I think the questioning isa mark of respect for people, an interest in what they have to say.I've always believed you can't do anything without a senseof the pros and cons."

Questioning can, as Summers says, be a mark of respect for thoseyou question. But only if you are focusing on them--thinkingabout how to draw out their views and sharpen theirthoughts. In many cases, leaders find their attention drawn to thedecision at hand, and so they blast a series of questions that mayhelp them clarify their own thinking. When you are caught up inyour own analysis, you can easily ignore the people side of yourwork--focusing on the "hard" aspects of the decision andpossible outcomes from it instead.

To avoid the question trap Summers seems to have fallen into, itmay be wise to jot down your personal ideas and questions in anotebook as you talk--but not voice them right away. Instead, playthe friendly reporter role in the conversation: Simply draw out adetailed, thoughtful presentation from the person you are listeningto. Use your questions to probe their ideas and feelings,not your own. That is the mark of respectful listening: an obvious,active interest in what the other person's views are, not indeveloping your own.

OK, OK--you're in a hurry and you want to make a gooddecision quickly. And you think your people should be respectful ofyou as well. Fine! But think about this: Who is more likely to giveyou an open, fair hearing when it comes time to present your views:someone to whom you have listened with full respect and interest,or someone you have cross-examined as if they are just there tobrief you, the great decision-maker, and then be led back to theircubicle?

Alex Hiam is a trainer, consultant and author of severalpopular books on business management, marketing andentrepreneurship, including Streetwise Motivating & RewardingEmployees, The Vest-Pocket CEOand other popularbooks.

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