I was listening to my colleague’s story. She had just finished a tough round of cancer treatment and didn’t have the support at home that she needed. She had gone on a trip to clear her mind, but it didn’t go as planned. She felt disappointed and alone. Now she was planning another trip and was finding herself fearful and considered canceling.
As I heard her story, I connected to her experience and I found myself fighting my urge to define her problem and offer solutions. I started to speak to my assumptions, but something stopped me. Instead, I asked a curious question. “What do you see as the root of your fear?” I expected her to verbalize my assumptions. Instead, she got a little teary and told me a difficult story about the place where she planned to travel. My assumptions were all wrong. I’m so glad I chose to be curious instead of offering advice based on my assumptions.
When people come to us with problems or concerns it’s easy to fall into giving advice. As we listen we start filling in the blanks with our assumptions. Then we can offer the prize! Our advice. It’s well intentioned, it’s empathetic, it’s connecting to their experience. However, too often we fill in the blanks with the wrong information. That’s where questions come in to save the day.
“Giving advice without first garnering as much context as possible is like taking a test about a subject to which you’ve never been introduced.”~Allison Isaacson
We can turn our advice into a good question that uncovers more than we could with our assumptions. It takes practice to engage more questions, so start with a few of these techniques:
Turn curiosity into questions.
When you start to fill in the blank with an assumption, think about a way you can hold that assumption in check and instead ask a question. In my story, it was reasonable to make an assumption my friend’s fear was about the details I already knew about her experience. Instead I asked a question so she could tell me about her current fear in her own words.
Asking bigger questions.
It’s easy to ask small questions that are almost like advice. I could have asked my friend, “Have you thought about delaying your trip?” It’s a question, however, I’m glad I asked a bigger question that allowed her to explore her thoughts and reflect on her fear in her own way without the barriers of my assumptions or advice. Asking those open ended questions helps get under the surface.
- Instead of “Why don’t you consider ______” try “What is it important to you?” or “What concerns you?”
- Instead of “What could you do about ____?” try “What impact does this have on you?” or “What is your preferred outcome?”
Experiment with new questions.
It’s easy to get in a rut asking the same questions that come easy. Take a little time to try out a new question or two and notice what works about it and what you might want to change the next time you try.
No question is perfect. If you hit a roadblock, it’s okay to pause and rephrase the question instead of defaulting to advice. And it’s okay to add perspective and share your thoughts in the conversation after you have listened to answers from some of the bigger questions. Simply, lead with your questions, follow slowly with your suggestions. What you can learn from questions can surprise you.
- Headed into a conversation that’s important to you? Grab a couple of “back pocket” questions that you might want to lead with and try them out. Don’t be afraid to wing it and turn your curiosity in the moment into a question.
- Check out the latest episode in our Side by Side Podcast on “That’s a Great Question” for more ways to ask great questions.
- Comment or send me an email on what questions work for you. I’d love to hear from you.