A few summers ago, we enjoyed a family trip to Greece. It is a land of boundless beauty with a long history of tremendous thinkers. While touring the Acropolis of Athens, our guide mentioned that when the restoration of this prized structure was being scheduled, time was budgeted for each worker to spend time thinking! Imagine that happening almost anywhere else in the world, but since Greece’s history is built upon the minds of the world’s greatest thinkers, it makes sense.
One of those great thinkers is the philosopher Socrates, who was born more than 2,500 years ago. Today, he is alive and well in any coach who inspires others to realize their potential. His Socratic method of questioning is a timely and timeless leadership tool for engaging teams and challenging thought processes.
Asking questions serves the needs of your employees and also serves the needs of the leader. It demonstrates interest in your team while providing you with insights into their motivations, passions, challenges, assumptions, and aspirations. The next time you are tempted to tell your team what to do, take a lesson from Socrates and ask for their perspectives first.
Questions Are the Answer
When it comes to coaching, questions are actually the answer. By simply asking questions, your employees will reveal challenges and opportunities that could potentially take you months or even years to identify. Remember, we all want to be seen and heard, and asking questions meets that need. Asking questions and then really listening demonstrates personal respect and a genuine desire to engage and develop your team. Listen for the entire message your employee is communicating with his or her words, tone, posture, eyes, energy, hesitations, fluency, etc.
Healthy leaders listen at least 50 percent of the time. Our client Andrew Levi, an excellent leader of numerous successful businesses, has done a tremendous amount of presenting and explaining in his efforts to build healthy cultures and businesses.
On the topic of listening, he says, “He who talks the most loses.” Ask, be silent, and listen to engage your team. What you discover will help you be a better coach. Healthy leaders make concerted efforts to keep in touch with the realities of their employees. They listen for the truth, even if it turns out to be uncomfortable or inconvenient. Ask your employees what they think and listen to their answers.
But what questions should you ask? Certain coaching questions work in almost any situation. These are five of our favorites to engage your team members:
- What do you think?
- Why do you think this is happening?
- What can we start, stop, and keep doing, to improve our work?
- And what else? (Repeated as a prompt to obtain more details.)
- Is this your very best work? (Lee’s mentor asks him this question.)
There is rarely a right answer to a wrong question. Asking questions without a clear objective is like playing the question lotto. Occasionally you might get lucky and win, but most of the time you will come up empty-handed. That’s a loss for you and for your team member.
There are four main reasons to ask questions:
- To understand
- To assess
- To innovate
- To motivate
It is important to know your objectives before you start asking. Within each objective, your question might focus on the person or the project/process. The following table serves as a guide to keep your coaching questions purposeful.