Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers. Voltaire

I chuckle every time I see a workshop purporting to teach you listening skills when they do not even approach the subject of how to ask a better question. I am not sure all the listening skills in the world will help when you have asked the wrong question or worse a disrespectful question.

Have you ever walked away from a conversation and said, “Man, can that person ever communicate!” In retrospect they communicated very little however they asked outstanding questions that drew you in, and did not push you away.

Questions are the foundation of any two-way conversation. They can either propel the conversation to discovery, understanding, and enlightenment or they shut it down, hurt feelings, or put people on the defensive.

So what is a respectful question? It is a question, when asked, is not judgmental, accusatory, or threatening.  It is a question that does not cause the person that answers it to recoil, hide for cover, or feel less than important.

Even the most well intentioned person can ask a question that will shut down the conversation or escalate the conflict innocently.

We are all basically allergic to questions, either asking them or answering them.  We learned this in elementary school when we answered the teacher’s questions correctly and our peers teased us for being the teacher’s pet or we answered them incorrectly and we were teased for being stupid.

A poorly constructed question can send a message of disrespect at best and be outright aggressive at worst. The sad thing is we can do this without even knowing it.

Take time and think about the question you are asking, how will it be received? Does it begin with the word “why”? A word that often creates a question that is judgmental, accusatory, or threatening.

The following steps can help you develop your questioning skills:

  • Write your questions down before a meeting
  • Write down statements you make and change them into a question
  • Ask a colleague if the question you want to ask would send the wrong message