We’re conditioned to think that leaders are supposed to have all the answers. And if they don’t have the answers, they’re seen as inadequate or incompetent.

It’s not surprising since the value of knowing the answers has been drummed into us from early days.

At school, you’re tested on your knowledge of the subject matter. At work, when the boss turns to you and ask how you came up with that number in the exhibit, she expects you to know the answer.

In your career, you work hard to become the expert and “go to” person in a particular area, and experts are people who have the answers.

But as Marshall Goldsmith’s book title reminds us, what got you here won’t get you there.

To step up as a leader and get to the next level of your career, you need to master the art of asking questions.

Asking questions can be more important than having the answers

The beauty of questions is that they invite in new ideas, open up the conversation and include more people.

Questions also help you shift the direction of a conversation or help you dig deeper into what’s being said and the intention behind it. And they are often the start of new opportunities.

While answers tend to close things down and draw the conversation to a conclusion, asking good questions is a hallmark of a great leader.

To help you become a better leader, here are seven of my favorite questions and when to use them:

1. Innovation

“How might we… ?”

This question encourages people to think about possibilities and envision different ways of doing things. It’s especially useful when the team has hit a roadblock and only a different way of thinking will get them past obstacles and challenges.

You can also use it to encourage your team to think innovatively and generate creative solutions. Like the kind television character MacGyver uses to get out of difficult situations and save the day.

2. Negotiation

“What would need to be true… ?”

This is especially useful when someone has said, “no” to your proposal.

One of my biggest takeaways from former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss’s book, Never Split the Difference, is that “no” isn’t the end of the negotiation. It’s the beginning and a first step to moving things forward.  

And asking, “what would need to be true (in order for XYZ to be seen as a good idea)?” is a great next step to getting to yes. That’s because it gets the person to share with you the scenario under which they would agree.

So simply insert the thing you want to achieve after “What would need to be true …?” It could be “in order for this to be a yes”, “in order for the committee to approve XYZ” or anything else you’re negotiating for.

3. Encouragement

“Can you tell me more about that?”

This question helps draw people out and encourage them to say more. It could be for quieter team members who may be reluctant to speak. Or to delve deeper into a comment that clearly has more going on behind it or that you’re interested in learning more about. You’re in essence “double clicking” on their statement.

Asking for someone to elaborate in this way encourages engagement. And you get to learn more about their thinking.

4. Decision-making

“What assumptions are we making? … What if the opposite were to be true?”

Examining the assumptions the group is making adds rigor to decisions. Often, we’re unaware of the assumptions leading to a recommendation, and if those assumptions are not accurate, you could be making the wrong decision.

Asking the follow-on question “what if the opposite were to be true?” helps pressure test the thinking. It’s especially useful when you’re concerned about assumptions the group is making that could close off possibilities.

It’s always good to be clear about what’s assumed so people can test those assumptions and you can make the best decision based on the information available.

5. Stakeholder management

“Who else needs to know? … Who else needs to be consulted?”

So often, decisions are made and communicated without including the relevant stakeholders. Asking “who else needs to know?” ensures the right people are included in communicating a decision, whether before the announcement or as part of the formal announcement itself.

And asking the cousin question, “who else needs to be consulted?” helps to make sure all the key stakeholders have had a chance to provide input before a decision is made.

When you consider your stakeholders and treat them with respect, you’ll build trust with your stakeholders and prevent future problems.

6. Communication

“How is this landing with you?”

What a leader says and how their audience interprets it can be vastly different. Just because your intention is positive doesn’t mean it will land that way with the person you’re talking to. This gap between the speaker’s intention and the impact on the audience can exist even for the best communicators.

That’s why it’s wise to check in after you’ve said something by asking, “how is this landing with you?” That way, you’ll find out whether there’s a gap between your intention and your impact while you still have a chance to close it… and before it has a chance to fester.

7. Accountability

“Do you have everything you need to be successful?”

It can be challenging for leaders to hold people accountable. This simple question at the end of the conversation is brilliant because it helps hold people accountable while also setting them up for success.

If they need additional resources or clarification, this question gives them an opening to ask. And once they have everything they need, they’re in essence agreeing to deliver on the assignment and to be accountable for it.

So here’s to becoming a leader who’s comfortable asking questions

Sure, you’ll have your share of answering questions, but having the confidence to ask the right questions at the right times will help you become an even better leader.

I encourage you to collect your own set of favorite questions to use as a leader. And in the meantime, feel free to use these 7 questions:

  1. Innovation: “How might we… ?”
  2. Negotiation: “What would need to be true… ?”
  3. Encouragement: “Can you tell me more about that?”
  4. Decision-making: “What assumptions are we making? … What if the opposite were to be true?”
  5. Stakeholder management: “Who else needs to know? … Who else needs to be consulted?”
  6. Communication: “How is this landing with you?”
  7. Accountability: “Do you have everything you need to be successful?”

Which of these questions will most help you become a better leader?

Leave a comment and let me know.