One of the most important tools of any leader is the ability to ask powerful questions. Powerful questions can refocus a conversation, expand our thinking and clarify uncertainties. In a meeting context, good questions are essential for obtaining clarity, alignment and ensuring accountability.
Powerful questions can take on various forms and be used for many purposes. Within the meeting context we identify three types of questions as paramount. As you read the descriptions below, you might realize that you are already leveraging these types of powerful questions. Our objective is to raise your awareness so you can use them more intentionally to drive great meeting results.
Close-ended questions are designed to generate a focused response, such as “yes” or “no,” or option A, B or C. These questions limit the choice of responses, eliminate ambiguity and are a vital tool for every meeting leader to make important distinctions.
For example: Are you confirming that the system will be ready for user acceptance testing by October 1, 2014?
Close-ended questions cut right to the chase and should be used intentionally to confirm or deny a meeting outcome. Consider this example:
Would everyone agree that we’ve made a decision to delay the project until February 1?
This question warrants a yes or no response. Anything else means that you have more work to do in order to get the clarity you need.
Close-ended questions provide a clear response without consuming too much meeting time. However, there are times when you need to elicit more information and open up the dialogue to surface more context. In this case you need to move to an open-ended question.
Open-ended questions require more than a simple yes or no answer. They are exploratory questions designed to dig beneath the surface of the discussion. Open-ended questions facilitate the gathering and sharing of information during the meeting process.
Unlike responses to close-ended questions, open-ended questions can consume a lot of meeting time as the individual responds. An example of an open-ended question is:
Would you share your thoughts on the decision to delay the project until February?
If you’re looking for confirmation or clarification, then a close-ended question is more suitable. If you are interested in exploring ideas, opportunities and risks, then open-ended questions are the way to go. Consider another open-ended question used in a situation where a stakeholder is struggling with the option of postponing a project:
What are some alternatives to postponing the project until February?
This might or might not surface other ideas or support the stakeholder in their thinking process. It will, however, generate more possibilities than a close-ended question.
Regardless of the questions asked, the importance is for meeting leaders to be intentional with their questions, and think through the type of response they are seeking.
Somewhere in between close-ended and open-ended questions rests a type of question we refer to as a specifying question. Specifying questions are designed to obtain important information that is often left out of the meeting dialogue. In a meeting context we focus on specifying questions in three primary instances – unclear nouns, actions and timing.
While there are multiple ways to dig for clarity in each instance, we leverage a simple model that includes an interrogative pronoun (that is, who, what, how, when) followed by the word “specifically.”
An unclear noun is a person, place or thing that is unclear in the stakeholder’s communication.
For example: “OK, I’ll have them set it up and have that over to you later next week.”
It is not entirely clear who “them” is and what “it” is. Meeting leaders need to determine the importance of any missing information and obtain it. To remedy this, the question could be:
“Who specifically is going to set it up?”
Another important question could be:
“What specifically are they setting up?”
When you recognize these unclear nouns you must determine if the missing information is important, and if so, get it.
Another area of ambiguity comes in the form of action. An unclear action is a verb that is especially vague. For example:
“My team will knock it out next week.”
Perhaps you know what they mean by “knock it out” or you might want to clarify by responding:
“How specifically are you going to knock it out?”
When it comes to deliverables, it is all too common for attendees to exclude a specific date for completing a task. Unclear timing is simply a situation where the meeting attendee leaves the date or time of a task, deliverable or event, unclear or unstated. For example:
“We should have that done by the summer.”
If needed, the ready response to this is:
“When specifically in the summer do you estimate having that done?”
It is not suggested that you need to bring specificity questions to every ambiguous term that arises in a meeting. The point is for meeting leaders to recognize ambiguity and remove it whenever necessary.
The bottom line is that questions are an essential tool for driving your meeting effectiveness. Use them wisely and you will certainly experience the increased clarity and alignment that is essential for high performing meetings.
What are some situations in your business where better questions would benefit you greatly?
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