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The Proteus Leader Show #29: The Power of Questions

Erika is joined by longtime business partner and friend, Jeff Mitchell, to explore how being a skillful questioner benefits a leader. Together, they offer valuable coaching about how to avoid pitfalls and question well.

00:00-01:08 - Introduction

01:09-06:07 - How Being a Skillful Questioner Benefits Leaders

06:08-07:23 - What Leaders Should Avoid When Asking Questions

07:24-09:50 - Previewing the Question

09:51-13:51 - Valuable Tips & Tricks for Questioning

12:29-13:52 - Closing

Intro: 00:01 You're listening to the Proteus Leader Show with Erika Andersen, well, you'll get practical tools and insights for leading and managing, and staying ready for future. Erika is the founding partner of Proteus, a firm that focuses uniquely on leader readiness. A nationally known executive coach and bestselling author, you may already know her as one of the most popular leadership bloggers on Ready for something you can use today? Here's Erika.

Erika: 00:31 Hello everyone and welcome back to the Proteus Leader Show. I am thrilled that today's guest is my longtime business partner and dear friend, Jeff Mitchell. Jeff is the president of Proteus and the creative mind that continually catalyzes our evolution as an organization. These days, he's putting most of his energy into our ever growing change practice, although he also works to improve our leadership development offer and to add his magic touch to nearly every part of our business. Jeff, I'm so glad to have you here with me on the show.

Jeff: 01:03 It's great to be here and if I'm half of the things you just listed, I'm proud.

Erika: 01:09 You are! You are all the things I just listed. So you know, I've always admired your skill in asking questions and I've often seen you help people go right to the heart of a difficult problem by asking just the right question. So I'd love to pick your brain about that for the benefit of our listeners because I think almost all of us can learn to be better askers of questions. So let's start by talking about how being a skillful questioner benefits a leader. So what do people get from asking good questions that they don't get from other ways of communicating?

Jeff: 01:41 Information that you wouldn't otherwise have. And that's my primary motivation. I know what I know going into the conversation and I expect to come out of it with new information. It may be confirmation of what I know. It may be information about the person as a person, sort of how they're feeling or thinking about a particular situation. But often it's contextual information. In working with clients, there's so much going on in their system, that every conversation is an opportunity to refresh your knowledge and test your old assumptions.

Erika: 02:24 Is it the same motivation with employees or is it different?

Jeff: 02:28 Yeah, I think it's definitely the same. It's, you know, you get a chance with questions to step into someone else's brain, perspective and see the world as you can't see it from your own perspective. So, certainly helpful with people on our team. I mean, it's an adventure. Every time you're in a conversation where you're asking good questions, you should be on the edge of your seat for what you're going to learn, which I think speaks to part what makes for a good questioner is a certain persistent curiosity. Even when you think you know everything, to be interested in finding the edges of your knowledge and adding to your knowledge.

Erika: 03:14 Oh, that's great. Well, so tell me if this is true. So even when you or I or any leader is asking a question to sort of test the hypothesis like, I think I know this, but I'm not sure you're saying that that always has to be in order to be a good question, it has to be backed by curiosity. You can't ask a question that you think you already know the answer to because that'll close you down.

Jeff: 03:40 Well, it's interesting. So the short answer is yes, and since I have the benefit of leading an organization with you, I think we have different assumptions going into most conversations because I think it's mostly our style differences. I think you trust the information you have until you're presented with alternative information and then you're very open and active to learn. I generally, and I'm not recommending this, but I generally mistrust everything I know, assume that either there are gaps in my knowledge or things have changed. So there will be times I think where we're together and I'm asking questions that you think are covering old territory. But to me it's a place to go explore.

Erika: 04:31 Oh, that's great. I'm learning a lot here. So often when it sounds to me like you're testing a hypothesis, you're not. You're saying, let's explore this, let's see what's actually true here.

Jeff: 04:42 I love the way you're framing it: Testing a hypothesis. I think everything is a hypothesis from my perspective with you, it's going to be more of a targeted: I want to make sure about X, and then you'll go test it. It's more of a general uncertainty that I bring to those conversations.

Erika: 05:00 I love that: The uncarved block. It's like what is true here? That's a wonderful place to come from.

Jeff: 05:06 I think there's a corollary in thinking about this conversation we're going to have. I reflected on recent conversations I've had, mostly with business leaders who are trying to get their organization to be more other curious: curious about clients, curious about customers, curious about other parts of the system. What they want people to do more of is do their homework. You know, before you go talk to a client, try to find out everything you can because the more you know, the more you can learn. If you know more about that client's context, they're going to be more open because you have higher credibility, but you sort of know some things already. They're not having to rewind all the way back to scratch and your questions are better.

Erika: 06:00 Yea, because you won't be spending time asking won't be wasting all your time asking those superficial questions that you could have found out by yourself.

Jeff: 06:07 Exactly.

Erika: 06:08 Yeah. That's great. Well, so what are some of the pitfalls? What would you suggest that leaders avoid when asking questions?

Jeff: 06:15 The main mistake I see people make is not listening when people are answering a question they've asked. Not all questions are great, but if the listening that follows the question is solid, you're going to get good information. When people ask a series of questions with no genuine understanding of what they're getting in demonstrating their understanding by, we call it restating, but basically active listening, playing back what you've heard the other person share, the essence of it. People start to give shorter and shorter answers, more and more superficial responses. But when you listen, you uncover things that a question alone, can't unlock. The person now has a receiver, so they want to share more.

Erika: 07:06 That's great. So you're saying when questions aren't followed by listening, they don't feel curious. They don't feel like you really want to hear. So you're going to get less and less information from the person.

Jeff: 07:17 Exactly.

Erika: 07:18 Wow. I think that's really true. And a series of questions without listening just starts to feel like an interrogation.

Jeff: 07:24 Yeah. Good way to describe it. Then, I guess the second piece is not providing context for the questions. And this can happen because we're, you know, as questioners, we may be inventing our questions as we go. Even we don't know why we're asking the question, it's halfway out of our mouth. This is a little secret we share in our training programs with people that every question - the reason why it's being asked - the receiver is making up the reason. They're guessing why this question's being asked. If a salesperson is asking a customer, what's your budget? The customer makes up the reason, I'm being asked this question so that salesperson can get as much of my budget as possible, where the real intention may be, you know, we have a variety of ways we can approach this and I really want to stay well within your budget so you have some flexibility to make changes midcourse. If it's not said out loud, then the bad assumption can persist and the answer will be degraded as a result. But if the sales person puts that reason why forward, then it's more likely the answers will be honest, direct and complete. So we call it a preview. It's saying why you're asking or what you'll do with the answer.

Erika: 08:55 You taught me this years ago, Jeff. And I still don't do it enough, but I think it's so valuable and I think it's especially valuable with leaders because often, un-previewed questions from leaders can feel kind of threatening, you know, so, why did you do that?

Jeff: 09:10 That's great. Yes, yes!

Erika: 09:13 ...versus, wow, I've never seen a response like this before and I'd really like to understand kind of what your thinking was behind it. Why did you do that? It feels completely different.

Jeff: 09:22 Right, and there are more hurdles for a leader to get real information, you know, people want to paint the rosiest picture, not upset the leader, leave the leader with a good impression. And so all those filters make it more likely the leader won't find out what's really going on. And by previewing they can create an atmosphere and environment where the real information is more likely to flow.

Erika: 09:51 That's wonderful. So you've sort of partly answered my third question, which is if you were going to offer, kind of your most valuable ideas or tips, coaching for questioning, well it sounds like this is one of them, to really preview questions, especially if you feel they might be misinterpreted.

Jeff: 10:08 Yes. It's interesting. I think so far my recommendations of things to avoid or do are things that happen before or after the actual question. So I guess it's part of questioning, but it's not the question itself. So maybe I'll offer a few tips about the questions themselves.

Erika: 10:26 Oh, perfect. Yeah.

Jeff: 10:27 So first, most people are familiar with the difference between closed questions and open questions where closed questions tend to get a yes or no answer. Is, can...questions that start with those words. Those are fine for getting specific information, but they don't give you information you don't know you're looking for. So if you know exactly what you need and that's all you need, closed ended questions are good, good to tie down and validate things, but open questions like what, why and how, questions that start that way, tend to get a lot more information. So generally I start with the more open questions and towards the end of an exchange I like a more closed ended, to tie things down.

Erika: 11:21 Yeah, that's great.

Jeff: 11:23 And then I think there's a way of being direct with your questions that gives credibility to the questioner and confidence to the responder that the person knows what he's looking for or she's looking for. So for instance, I think one of the ways I build credibility with new clients is I will ask some tougher questions early on without any hesitation, no big buildup. I'll use a preview, but it'll be succinct. Something like, we haven't worked on a project like this before, so I'll start with asking, you know, where are some places where you expect we might have some disagreements, and this is a way of me hearing what are this person's assumptions about working with consultants or what are some things that have happened in his or her past that he or she wants to avoid? But it's a pretty blunt question when you're starting a relationship.

Erika: 12:26 Yeah. And it's a great way to, it demonstrates in a single stroke of, well previewed blunt question. This is the kind of relationship I'd like to have with you: one of transparency and mutual honesty.

Jeff: 12:40 That's perfect. And I guess my last thing would be, an after a question or instead of a question recommendation, it's the power of the pause...of silence. Sometimes people ask a question and before the responder can get their answers started, they jump in with another question, which is confusing, and also likely to lead the person to pick and choose what they share. So instead just pause after you ask a question and I sometimes even pause after the question has been answered. I give a full second, two second pause. And what typically happens is the person has more to share. Either they've caught up with their own thinking or they're getting comfortable sharing that second layer of information. So, power of the pause.

Erika: 13:40 That's great. And catching up with their own thinking and getting comfortable sharing, and sometimes, I think, almost unconsciously testing, do you really want to hear this? Are you actually listening?

Jeff: 13:51 That's perfect.

Erika: 13:52 Oh Wow. I wish we had a lot more time, but I always promise our listeners that this will be short and sweet. So thank you so much, Jeff. So you know how much I love being your partner and it's been so great having this conversation with you. I'm glad we were finally able to do it. And listeners, if you'd like to find out more about questioning as a key part of the larger skill of listening, just go to and choose the Listening topic. So thank you all for being with us today and until next time, here's to creating the life you truly want.

Outro: 14:28 I hope you're feeling better equipped to create the career, the business and the life you want. For more insights and tools for leadership and management, join us at Have an excellent day and thanks for listening.