Ask Good Questions, Get Good Results

connections created by strings between pushpins

Do you ever get frustrated in a virtual meeting when you ask for input and get crickets?

Have you considered that the problem might be, not with your team, but with your question?

All right, those were bad questions: closed, yes/no questions with an obvious “right” answer.

You’re smarter than that. You ask open-ended questions. Maybe you’ve tried something like “What are your ideas?” But you still got no meaningful responses.

Somewhere between yes/no questions with an obvious right answer and open-ended questions you can drive a truck through is the sweet spot: Questions that spark true collaboration.

If, for example, you’re trying to solve a customer experience problem, useful questions might be:

  • What are we hearing from clients about what is and isn’t working for them?
  • What do we know about the solution we need to build? What do we still need to find out?
  • What are we hearing from the staff who will be implementing this change?
  • What are we still missing?
  • How might this approach go wrong?

With better questions, you get better results: more participation, more creativity, more actionable ideas.

You’ll get the very best results if you ask good questions of a group that has already gelled as a team.

Creative ideas come from groups whose members trust each other and the leader. People have to feel safe to fail, to have bad ideas, to go down a bunny hole and come back — because that’s when they can get really creative.

So you want to build trust. But wait! We can’t do trust-building exercises! That’s OK. Trust walks and ropes courses are not how you build a team.

You build a team by making connections. And one of the best ways to make connections is to ask good connecting questions.

A new coaching client — I’ll call him “Carlton” — was exploring why it was so hard to get his new team engaged in online meetings. I asked some questions, and he reached this diagnosis: “I think people think I’m unapproachable.”

After a few more questions, I gave him an assignment: Have a 30-minute one-on-one conversation with every team member. Only 5 of those 30 minutes could be about work.

When we met again, Carlton was beaming. “I’m so glad I did this! I found out that three people have kids the same age as mine, and another one also has a new puppy. This one person’s mom worked for [our organization] about the same time my dad did, so they probably knew each other.”

Carlton figured out his own opening for these conversations. He told team members that he didn’t have an agenda but did want to see how things are going and how he could help.

Because his team is tech people, he thought it would be best to start his questions with work, but he didn’t want to get into the weeds of specific projects. So we brainstormed a bank of good connecting questions:

  •       Where did you work before this? What was that like?
  •       How did you know you wanted to go into IT?
  •       What’s something you’ve done in the past couple of years that you’re proud of?

Every time, one or more of those questions opened up a line of inquiry that was a little more personal. Oh, you got married last year? Your family is from Chicago? How did your coworkers react to your proud moment?

Did Carlton and his team solve any business problems in this round of calls? Nope.

Did they evolve toward being a team that can solve thorny problems? You betcha. They are building what is called an “emotional bank account of connection and trust.

The next step is for Carlton to connect team members with each other. He’s going to set aside 10 minutes in each of the next few meetings for pair conversations in breakout rooms.

Again, good connecting questions are key. Here are a few we came up with, from introductory to advanced:

  1.   What’s the worst thing about working from home? The best?
  2.   What’s something that made you laugh recently?
  3.   What’s the best thing that happened this week at work / outside of work?
  4.   What’s your favorite thing about your job?
  5.   Besides family and work, what are your passions?
  6.    What is your superpower?

Connecting questions build trust. They help you cultivate a garden where collaboration and innovation can grow. With good connecting questions — especially over time — you’ll build a team that works together to get good results.

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