The way we ask questions determines what we find. In fact, the very first question we ask begins the listening process. So there’s a big responsibility in asking questions that invite responses that keep us engaged and interested and result in what it is we are seeking to learn about. Moreover, in the process, when done really well, both inquirer and responder are likely to learn something new about the situation and each other. That, we call a generative or developmental conversation.
First question is a choice point
The first question provides a choice point and influences what follows. It also impacts the quality of the relationship. The first question you ask can open people up or shut them down. Many managers/leaders complain that their people have nothing to say. They express frustration that in meetings when they ask questions or ask for input their people say nothing. “They’ve got nothing to contribute”.
I’ve heard the same from parents, who try to engage with their kids. “I try to have a conversation with them. They’ve got nothing to say.”
Recognizing your own mental and emotional state
Consider your own mental and emotional state, and your intention when you begin to engage with others. If you are in a state of genuine curiosity and are authentic in your intention to truly listen and be present to them, you will be ready to listen and be open to what is shared. Remember a time when you were in love, having a romantic dinner with your loved one and how present you were for each other. Remember how you listened with real vested interest and an open heart, hanging off every word. Very different from having a rushed dinner with your spouse when all you want is to get up from the table and get on with the next activity, and little patience to listen.
When I learnt about question techniques in school, I learnt the difference between closed questions and open questions. Both are good and useful for different purposes.
Closed questions usually result in a “yes” or “no” response. For example,
- Q: “Do you like the new format?” A: “Yes.”
Open questions allow for a more open-ended response that provides more information. Remember, we were taught to use the question words: who where, when , how why and what to find out more.
- Q: ” What do you like about the new format?” A: “I like that it’s easier to follow, and….”
You can even shape the conversation or inquiry further by how we craft the question. The question can be deficit-based:
- “What weaknesses do you see in the new format?”
Or it can be appreciative-based:
- “What strengths do you see in new format?”
The direction of a question
Therefore, it’s important to become more conscious of where you want to take the responder with your question. What you focus on grows. You can focus on the deficits and weaknesses of a system, and we seem to do that by default. And, you can focus on solutions, possibilities, excitements by asking questions that provide opportunities for expansive thinking, thereby encouraging others to open up.
Through our questions we have the power to shape our conversations and relationships at home, in school, at work, in the media, in world politics. If we want to become more appreciative listeners, it helps to remind ourselves that it starts with the first questions we ask.
- We live in a world our questions create.
- Our questions determine the results we find.
- The more positive our question, the more it will create the possible.
- Our questions create movement and change
Appreciative inquiry facilitates our becoming appreciative listeners
How do you become a more appreciative listener? You pay attention to the quality of your questions, you stay in the state of appreciative inquiry and you sit back, listen and experience the difference.