The Power of Questions to a Leader

Too many times in my life and career, I have been consumed with how important it is to share my knowledge with others instead of learning to ask questions and listen.  This especially was true early in my financial career.  I was taught the skills of being able to condense the sales pitch of your institution into a thirty to sixty second sound bite.  Now this may have been effective in spewing my knowledge to the client, but it did not allow me to learn from the customer, nor build any sort of relationship. 

One of my uncles once told me, “Phil, the Good Lord gave you two ears and only one mouth.  So shut up and listen!”  His advice is so true.  I learned that I needed to have a natural curiosity about things and ask those questions.  Then I need to listen to the answers.  Sometimes, when I meet with someone I will ask a question I know they know the answer to, but I just want to hear them explain. 

Part of the power of questions comes from a humble realization that you can always learn something from someone else.  We rely on others as our teachers through life.  It is only by questions that you can actually unlock those gems of wisdom. 

Thomas J. Watson said, “The ability to ask the right questions is more than half the battle of finding the right answer.”  This is so true.  But it is only true if you are willing to ask the question in the first place.  Perhaps our jobs in credit, help us be more open to asking insightful questions that could be construed by others as intensively private.  Questions like “why have your accounts receivable grown so much?” “why is your top line room revenue down in your hotel?” or “what is your succession plan for your company?” do seem quite personal at times.  But these questions, if asked with genuine concern and the desire to learn, will help us unlock the inner ticking of the company and understand their risk.  So it is with questions that we have an effective way to connect with people. 

Communication comes from the Latin word communis, which means common.  Before we can communicate, we must establish commonality.  The more common ground we can find, the greater the chance for good and deep communication.  Effective communication prompts people to think, “Yes, I agree and understand!”  Too often communication is one way and will result in the listener saying “So what?”  The playwright George Bernard Shaw once said “The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”  When you think your audience understands what you have said, watch out!  You may be on very vulnerable ground for a mutual understanding.

Of any question you can ask, perhaps “why” is the most important.  It helps unlock the true motives of a person’s heart and will require an explanation other than a yes or no.  Larry King, who made his living as a television talk show host, says that “Why” is his favorite question.  He calls “why” as “the greatest question ever asked and it always will be.  And it is certainly the surest way of keeping the conversation lively and interesting.” 

Asking good questions also require prior planning.  When you are preparing for a meeting with someone, think through the questions you want to ask.  You need to communicate that you value the people you are with and that, if it possible, you want to add value to them.  This process will require asking questions and being able to “shut up and listen!”