Often we try to put words in peoples mouths or give direction as to what we think should happen, or we think we are asking the right questions, however we are leading people to a particular outcome (which we have either subconsciously or consciously decided is the best outcome or response).
Stopping to assess whether we have asked the most suitable question in a given moment takes time and practice and yes, patience! I would say that stopping or being still prior to asking, is part of the art of mindfully asking questions or being. In Appreciative Inquiry, we assume that the act of asking questions of an individual or group influences them in some way - in fact it usually gets them thinking a different way, depending on the question and the way in which it is asked.
Imagine that in a performance appraisal conversation you asked your team member, "what brings life to your work everyday?" Or, "why do you get up out of bed and come to work everyday?" If you knew the answer to this as a leader, would it support you to facilitate higher levels of engagement? Perhaps for some leaders it would, and for others it wouldn't, it depends on each individual, hence why the particular question we ask in a given situation is critical to being able to positively influence our workplace dynamics and the world around us.
For example, your team is working on a project and an employee doesn't seem as engaged as you would like, this employee just won't put as much effort as others, and doesn't seem enthusiastic about the work (as far as you are concerned).
In our time poor work environments, a typical response to this situation, is to either; ask this employee why they won't invest more time in the project, tell them to lift their game, or pretend everything is ok and behave in a passive aggressive manner and the project doesn't get completed in time. Lastly you may even pretend everything is ok and take the additional workload on yourself, potentially making you feel stressed and frustrated.
Consider however, this particular scenario; you notice that this employee isn't as engaged as you would like on a project (as far as you have perceived it) and you ask this team member to have a one on one chat or go for coffee. Instead of putting all of your assumptions on the table, treat this as an inquiry, where anything is possible, even the possibility that you haven't been an engaging inspiring leader is a possibility. Personally, at this point I would tell my team member what I want to chat to them about, so that I am being transparent, this also gives them time to have a think about our upcoming chat if they need it.
This approach means putting the ego to the side and being open to inquiry and hearing a different perspective. Several modalities and frameworks use the approach of an inquiry verses assumptions or leading questions. These include Appreciative Inquiry, Neuroleadership communication tools, NLP clean language techniques as well as several others.
So, now you are having some one on one time with your team member and after the usual chit chat, you might start with something like, "X, I wanted to chat to you about some of my observations of our team project, and would be really interested in your insights and perspective." You would then go on to share what you have perceived (no accusations or judgements, simply observations at this point).
In having these types of conversations, ideally it would be clear that you are in a genuine inquiry, and that this individual is safe to be honest. There isn't much point having this type of conversation if you are going to eventually accuse them without logical, fair and sound consultation and decision making. Your non-verbal language will give an individual a great deal of insight as to whether this is in fact an inquiry.
Once you have shared your observations, invite your team member to share their insights. Note that we do not ask them to share "their side of the story", as this assumes that you are on different "sides". Ideally the language and questions you use, will aim to find the truth in the situation, often times "the shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions" (Bahai Writings), so it is OK to have differences, its how we address these differences that matter.
At this point your team member would have started to share their perspective, it may include them not enjoying the work, or the people they work with, or having difficulties outside of work, or perhaps they genuinely think that they are doing most of the work and others aren't pulling their weight.
Now that you have information and insights from this team member, you are able to objectively assess what to do next, whether it includes asking the team member what you should do next, or having a chat with the team, or implementing strategies where everyone feels engaged (usually in consultation with the team).
With an inquiry approach to communication and sensitive conversations, and by asking the most ideal questions for a particular situation, we are in a position were we create more trust and transparent workplace dynamics, which will eventually lead to higher levels of productivity and engagement. It also creates an environment where things flow more easily and we are able to bring out the best in people and the situations we are in.
Approaching communication with inquiry doesn't mean you have to act on everything others say or completely put your perspective aside, it is simply a means to ensure that you are achieving potential in a fair manner. After all, as individuals we only see what we see, and are not in a position to see a situation from all perspectives unless we have an aerial view (all the time).
As a coach asking the ideal questions for clients enables the client to think for themselves and resolve an issue through their own wisdom - more on this topic in future updates.
Mona is a workplace and organisational development coach and consultant, specialising in appreciative conversations, performance conversations, culture change, leading the self and others, and mindful leadership techniques. www.monamomtazian.com