Clarifying Questions

What questions are you asking?   It matters more than you might think.

By Dr. Kristin Backstrom

As leaders, it’s important to recognize that sometimes our own opinions shut down others around the table.  Whether we speak first or last, it can matter tremendously to our team to hear what we think before they share their own opinion.

As you might imagine, this isn’t particularly helpful for well-rounded decision-making.  A key element of being a successful leader is the ability to effectively seek out the perspective of others … even/especially from those who do not think the way we might.  This is where innovation and creativity can reside, and we can do more to find potential opportunities by searching out the ideas of others.  Think of how questions like “But don’t you think we should approach it from this angle?”  or, “Won’t employees take advantage of that policy?” can shut down conversation, or stifle engagement.  Once opinions or perspectives – especially those of the leader – are on the table, it can be harder for others to offer up competing thoughts.

Here’s how we change that up.  Instead of asking questions with an obvious slant, use clarifying questions instead.

A clarifying question is designed to get information, not express bias or opinion.  Sounds so easy, but if you’ve ever sat through any meeting, you know that’s not how it often goes.

Try this experiment.  Imagine the business decision is to increase the marketing budget.  What are some questions that might be asked? And which ones in the list below are clarifying questions, rather than opinion questions?

  • What are the results that are expected?
  • Don’t you think that money would be better spent on product development?
  • What are the milestones to show we’re on the right path?
  • Why does marketing always get budgets increased?
  • Shouldn’t we wait to see what the market will do in the next few months?

Some of these questions might be familiar to you and show up in your meetings.  Can you see how clarifying questions strip out bias and look for facts?

Clarifying questions can make all the difference in how you and your team learn from each other.  A client recently shared with me that as the CEO of a multi billion-dollar tech company, he felt the most significant change from our coaching work was in learning how to ask better questions of his team. Where he had previously inserted his own opinion into questions he asked in meetings, which invariably turned the meeting into an argument, using clarifying questions kept people focused on the specific problem to be solved.  By reducing the conflict, team trust was also enhanced.

Clarifying questions are also a key tool used in Clark Leadership facilitated peer groups – making this the basis of our groups’ unique value proposition.  Issue processing, an important part of our group meetings, allows a member to focus on a particular issue they are facing and to obtain concrete and objective perspectives on the problem from their fellow group members.  They use clarifying questions to help the individual truly understand the issue, what might be causing it, how opinions and biases may be swaying their view and potential resolutions.

Within the quest for factual information, stripped of preconceptions and “you should”, Clark Leadership clients find that using clarifying questions becomes a haven for piercing limiting ideas and behaviors, seeing things in a new and different way, and ultimately achieving business success.

So why use clarifying questions?  They are a powerful strategic tool to uncover new information.  They are supremely useful in finding missing data or surfacing confusing content in proposals, for example.  CQs reduce conflict, improve decision-making, and supercharge learning.  And they’re not just for leaders … they are for everyone on the team. Of course, learning to use clarifying questions regularly does take some intention and focus.  But when everyone is using only clarifying questions, you’ll find bias is reduced and learning is supercharged.

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