Any fans of Tintin out there? Oh. Well, I’ll move off the subject in a minute, but as a diehard Tintin fan myself, I want to start this issue with a classic moment from The Red Sea Sharks.
Captain Haddock finds himself face to face with his old enemy Captain Allan. Allan has the Captain locked in a cabin overnight, and leaves him with a question to ponder: “Do you sleep with your beard under or over the sheet?” Wrangling over the question leaves our hero, as his enemy predicted, unable to sleep (until… but I won’t spoil it for you.)
If you doubt the effectiveness of questions as a form of torture, ask yourself how much of your consciousness is littered with equivalents of the ‘beard’ question: Little questions that get under your skin and won’t go away. As a conversation starter in a pub, I once asked a group of friends whether any of them could name an album he played all the way through without skipping a single track. The ensuing brow-furrowing filled the rest of the evening, and rumbled on via email for weeks.
In daily organizational life, most of us seem instinctively to prefer telling to asking. It’s the classic coaching dilemma: do I tell someone how to do something, or ask them how they think they might do it? A combination of ‘time is money’ consciousness and inherent control freakery tends to make ‘tell them’ somehow the safer option. If Captain Haddock’s experience is anything to go by, the average organization would grind to a halt if everyone started asking each other questions.
And yet questions proliferate like bacteria. Should we go into this new market? Should we hold a rights issue? Should we diversify? Specialise? The best answer to most of these is probably ‘who cares?’, and yet whole divisions expend massive energy trying to answer them.
There are some broad distinctions, though, between the type of questions that tend to be asked and those that tend to be avoided. The latter fall into three categories:
1. Token questions. Employee surveys are a great example of this. The answer to the questions are of little interest to anyone outside the HR department, but the act of asking them is the organizational equivalent of leaning forward and nodding: it signals interest without committing to a reply.
2. Rhetorical questions. Every well trained manager knows that if someone in your team makes a mistake, you should ask a probing question to help them understand the cause. Sadly, “What the **** do you think you’re playing at?” does not appear in the coaching lexicon, though it’s usually the one on the average manager’s lips.
3. ‘Should’ questions. You will have noticed that all the organizational examples given earlier fall into this category, an interesting example of the form. Technically a question such as “Should I take this job?” is more complex and far less authentic than “Do I want this job?”. Unfortunately, the ‘should’ question appears easier, because it does not require you to bare your soul and be honest with yourself, merely to pick over the rubble of your superficial concerns and choose the path of least resistance. ‘Should’ questions are about other people’s priorities for you; they do not require you to take any ownership.
And it is ownership questions which tend to get avoided. Anthony Robbins is fond of pointing out that the secret to getting what you want is amazingly simple: you just have to ask. But he knows very well that the reason most of us don’t get what we want is that to ask for it requires taking ownership of, and responsibility for, one’s own path - a quality shared by pretty well all useful questions. Space prohibits an exhaustive list, but let me make a couple of recommendations:
1. Don’t malign the closed question. People knock it because it stifles exploration of an issue. But used carefully, there’s no better way of testing commitment: “Is this what you really want?” “So when exactly will you do this?” (and my favourite, “Could you pay me by the end of the week?”).
2. Learn to love ‘possibility’ questions. For my money, the greatest creative question ever devised is “How might I/we/you….?” It is the acme of this art form: it is non-judgemental; the possible answers are limitless; but it requires the subject of the question to really take hold of, and explore, the territory under discussion. And it is all about maximizing potential. Just try this simple experiment. Pick something you would like to achieve. Ask yourself first: “How should I achieve this?” Now ask: “How might I achieve this?” Which one makes you feel more powerful? But which version do you hear most often? Like Captain Allan, I’ll leave you to sleep – or not – on it.
© Phil Lowe, 2005. All rights reserved.