Questions versus Telling

A young couple, who were six months into a manufacturing startup, called to set an appointment to talk about their bedding product business. We asked how it was going in general, and they reported they were selling product and just barely meeting expenses. We set a time to stop by for a tour and a discussion.

Almost before they started our tour of their assembly shop we began to see some of the issues—their organic product line was so expensive it constricted their customer base to a tiny, upper-income niche when their natural market was more student based, they had hired college-educated assemblers with corresponding wages, and their facility was located in high-rent Cambridge, Mass.

By the time we finished the tour we were pretty sure we had a few really practical solutions—broaden the product line, hire cheaper labor and move. But we didn’t share our diagnosis and we didn’t give them any advice. We asked a question: Do you have specific problems you’d like help thinking through?

They did, and those weren’t the same problems we had been ready to solve. They wanted advice on creating a profit-sharing plan that would be pleasing and motivating to their college friends—those assemblers. They wondered how to find cheaper suppliers of organic materials, and by the way, they loved living and working in Cambridge—a different set of questions than we assumed. Our thoughts would have to wait until we developed a trusting professional relationship by addressing their questions.

We are a culture that values knowing and telling, and this often leads us into giving answers before we ask important questions about things like, what is the problem the other person wants to solve and how far have they gotten with possible solutions.  We tend to feel our status is enhanced by telling, that telling what we know shows our competence, or that just telling it speeds up problem solving and implementation.

We see this all the time in day-to-day interactions between leaders we work with and their teams. Recently a team member interrupted a meeting I was in with a company CEO. She asked, “What do you want me to do about the problem with the regulatory reports?”

He answered, “Like I told you, draft a response letter and show it to me.” When she left he expressed frustration, “How many times do I have to tell her?”

I asked if she would really know the answer to her own question, if she thought about it. He said she might. I asked what question he might ask that would force her to think it through. He came up with a reasonable initial question and began considering the effects of asking it. I then asked did he know if she was comfortable trying things without initially checking the details with him. He said he had never thought of asking her.

I didn’t need to suggest solutions to his problem; I needed to ask questions that neither of us knew the answer to. He didn’t need to tell his person what to do; he needed to find out what was getting in the way of her solving the problem on her own.

If you can actually stay curious, and demonstrate it by asking the right kind of questions, you encourage learning by both you and the other person. Being truly curious—humbly inquiring, not setting them up to answer your way—can help the other person drop their defensiveness and their need to know and begin to think.

Let me start this whole piece again.

How effective are you at getting other people to listen and learn when you keep telling them what to do?