Dan Arens

Purdue University basketball legend John Wooden asked the following question: “Why is it so difficult to realize that others are more likely to listen to us if first we listen to them?” His reputation as a leader, both on and off the basketball court, has withstood the test of time. Maybe that is why Sports Illustrated chose him as the greatest coach of the twentieth century.

Coach Wooden’s actions spoke so much louder than his words. As a mentor and motivational coach, Wooden was known to ask the right questions and to listen more than he talked. He was genuinely interested in others. He wanted to know what they thought and how they felt.

According to Brighton Leadership, “Questions are powerful because they increase commitment and improve the outcome of any situation when you stop giving advice and start engaging the person’s brain. Questions are powerful because they help focus thinking. When you get focused on thinking you can create breakthrough answers.”

In a landmark study published in the Harvard Business Review, Professors Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K John studied and reported on asking questions. As an owner/manager of a business, you are in the unique position each and everyday to provide guidance and direction for your company. Brooks and John felt very strongly about HOW you could go about encouraging and motivating your staff.

In many respects, they say, “Much of an executive’s workday is spent asking others for information- requesting status updates from a team leader, for example, or questioning a counterpart in a tense negotiation…few executives think of questioning as a skill that can be honed- or consider how their own answers to questions could make conversations more productive. That’s a missed opportunity. Questioning is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in organizations; It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members. And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.”

Psychologist Carl Jung stated, “The right question is already half the solution to a problem.” Talk show host Oprah Winfrey has said, “Ask the right question, and the answers will always reveal themselves.” In so many respects, these quotes are priceless pearls of wisdom.

Simply put, the power of a question is not one of complexity, but of simplicity. The most direct approach is to ask more questions in the course of your conversations. Naturally, just asking more questions does not always positively impact a conversation. Give some thought to how the question can be framed and the tone in which you ask it.

Consider a simple two step approach. First, ask a straight forward question such as ‘What do YOU think?’ Or ‘What would YOU recommend?’ Second, concentrate on listening to the answer. Then, as the saying goes ‘wash, rinse, repeat.’ Practice on what questions to ask in certain situations, but ALWAYS focus your complete attention on the answers you get with an appropriate level of listening.

The following story by Dr. Jonathan Westover, summarizes the power of a question and appropriate ways of listening for the answers. “Years ago, as a young college student trying to learn the ropes and figure out my path in life, I found myself in the office of an older, very sage professor, seeking advice. I was contemplating switching majors (again!), but the university didn’t then offer the specific program I was seeking. This professor, who became a dear mentor to me, sat there and patiently listened as I expressed my scattered, naïve, probably incoherent thoughts. Instead of offering any specific advice, he simply listened intently, only speaking at times to restate something I had said in order to confirm understanding or to ask a thought-provoking question. As I left that brief meeting, I was amazed by the clarity I had regarding my conundrum and how to move forward. My questions and concerns had been heard, I felt understood, I felt genuine compassion and caring, and I felt empowered to make my decision. Upon further reflection, I realized that I experienced firsthand the power of listening.”

Another motivational legend, Dale Carnegie, in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, said, “Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.” Then “Be a good listener.”

Questions can be a wonderful key for unlocking a significant amount of value in your company. When used correctly, they, along with sincere listening, can help take your business to the next level of growth.

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