...and also the parent. And the spouse. Maybe also the teacher, the roommate and the soccer coach.
There are days when I'd go so far as to say the sole reason for my being successful at anything in life, is my ability to stall. I used to have a very flimsy kill switch. Maybe you know what I mean? It's like there's a switch in my brain, and if you flip it, my heart will beat fast, my body will stiffen, my face will go red and my mind will race.
Over the years I got pretty good at hiding these symptoms, but it doesn't make me any less dangerous - to myself or others.
I have come to appreciate more and more the power of a well-placed question. Last week, I was working with a senior leader whose team member has a tendency to interrupt her during meetings, speaking over top and effectively taking control. She used the phrase "steamroll." The leader's natural tendency in this situation is to back off. She doesn't want to dish out the same behaviour and engage in a public power struggle. And after every occurrence, she hates herself for being steamrolled. Not knowing what to do in this one situation is undermining her confidence - her belief in herself that she can manage well. Not knowing what to do brings her to the point of inaction. She can't even think about the right thing to say, let alone the right way to say it.
"You need a secret weapon," I told her.
And this is truly what I think our questions represent. Questions offer so many benefits, and depending what situation you find yourself in, there are three different categories of questions that can serve you well.
1) Probing Questions (aka Genuine Curiosity)
These are the questions that stem from genuine curiosity. They are the holy grail of questions. I try to make ALL of my questions Probing Questions because these are questions that stem from the genuine desire to understand something about the person in front me, the situation around me or the information just shared with me. They are sparked by faithfully listening to what someone else has to say, or tuning in deeply to the situation around us. They aren't manufactured in advance, they just occur to us in the moment because...well...we've gotten lost in the moment.
2) Pausing Questions (aka Stop...Prepare)
These questions that function more as a tool. Sometimes the people in front of us get heated. Sometimes they flip our kill switch. Sometimes we feel accused, insulted or overlooked. Sometimes our emotions try to hijack our brains, and if we allow this, we do all sorts of damage. My kids have a piano teacher who teaches them to "Stop, Prepare." What she means is that whenever you're not quite sure your fingers are in the right spot for the next notes, to stop, prepare, and then play. The Stop, Prepare strategy means they should never have to play a wrong note (in theory...). I could apply the same tactic to every difficult conversation I've ever successfully navigated. And for every difficult conversation I've botched, it's because I lost the self-control to Stop, Prepare.
Stop, Prepare questions are the ones we ask when we don't know what to say. Maybe we don't know what to say because we don't know what we're feeling. Maybe we don't know what to say because Scott the Operations Manager has just pounded his fist on the table, called me a loser and I'm in such a state of shock that all words have abandoned me.
Whatever the reason, a well-placed Stop, Prepare can, quite literally, save the day.
3) Sharing Questions (aka Opinions Held Lightly)
These are actually statements, framed as questions. I once read a statistic that said 90% of questions are actually statements, disguised as I questions. Some experts say we should never do this, because these are questions that don't actually ask...they tell. Used properly, I think these questions can be a disciplined way to put an idea out to the group. Sometimes I have a perspective on something that I expect will be controversial or unpopular. Sometimes I don't want to state that as a hard fact...so I re-frame it as an exploratory question. Rather than saying "I think our people are very disengaged right now" I might ask "I wonder how engaged our people are right now?" It's putting an opinion out there, and at the same time acknowledging that my mind can be changed on the subject, which invites contribution.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it most certainly rescued the Manager. And also the parent. And the spouse. Maybe also the teacher, the roommate and the soccer coach.
A well-placed question is like a secret weapon, growing us and expanding our viewpoint at the best of times, enabling us to stall and find space for self-control at the worst of times.
Are you putting your secret weapon to good use?