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When your questions aren’t well received

(February 26, 2024 Newsletter)

By now, you know that I love good questions. Not only do I love good questions, but I encourage every client, reader of this newsletter, and follower on social media to make curiosity a central pillar of their leadership style.

So it’s been notable to me that three clients have mentioned in the last few weeks that a question they asked at work wasn’t well received. Either the respondent got defensive or annoyed, or for some other reason the question didn’t achieve the desired result.

Why it matters: While curiosity is an important leadership quality, it can backfire if mishandled (just like others). In those cases, a question can come across as condescending, passive aggressive, or out of place.

  • Since this won’t have been your intention, it behooves you to sharpen your inquiry skills instead of reverting to just telling people what to do.

What do I mean by sharp inquiry skills? Here are a few nuances worth consideration:

  1. Not all questions are created equal. For example:

  • There are open-ended versus closed questions (“Did you try ___ already?” versus “What have you already tried?”).

  • There are questions oriented towards understanding the past and those oriented toward making future choices (“Why haven’t you…?” versus “What next steps are you considering?”).

  • There are suggestions or theories couched as questions (“Why don’t you just…?” or “Do you think it might be…?”) which, frankly, don’t count.

  1. A question can feel like a challenge or interrogation without a lead-up. Acknowledging what was just said can remind the person you’re on their side. How would these examples land if they were just questions?

  • “It sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into this. What next steps are you considering?”

  • “I can sense how frustrated you are. How can I help?”

  • “What you’re sharing is enticing, especially the part about ___. Could you say more about ____ [other part]? It wasn’t as clear to me.”

  1. Get permission. Checking whether the person is open to a question shows your respect for their agency in the situation. Sometimes it’s really not the right moment and that’s worth respecting in any relationship, regardless of titles. Try out:

  • “Do you mind if I ask a question?”

  • “Is now a good time for me to ask something?”

  • “Are you open to me probing a bit here?”

And if it’s still not well received… don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re only half of the communication relationship and the recipient might have something else going on that’s unrelated to you or that your question set off for them.

  • If their brush-off really bugs you, you can always loop back later in the day or week to ask if they have any feedback for you.

In short, wording matters – and you can choose yours to decrease the likelihood of defensive responses. You can’t control people’s reactions, but you can set yourself up for the highest chance to empower and connect with your team.


The Coaching Corner

Invite your team to take the long view

In periods of high stress or uncertainty, it can be helpful to zoom out and draw energy from the past or future. Here are some questions to try out:

  1. (Past): What have you learned about yourself in the last few years that makes you ready/equipped for this moment?

  2. (Future): If someone were to ask you about this experience in 5 years, what would you want to say about how you go through it?

  3. (Future): If you were to write about this experience in your memoir, what lesson will you be proud to have learned here?



Podcast rec: In Adam Grant’s Worklife, he recently interviewed Lisa Feldman Barrett on the topic You have more control over your emotions than you think" - as I often say to my clients, just because you have a thought doesn’t make it true. This podcast episode is that message, on steroids.


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