Are there any questions – Silence!

Bob Tiede of leadingwithquestions.com kindly asked me to contribute some guest articles to his brilliant blog/website, following the publication of my book Asking Great Questions (now available at Amazon.com). The first of my articles is published on his site this week and Bob did such a brilliant job of the photo and presentation.

Change your Question, Change Results post image

GUEST POST BY AILEEN GIBB, MMC (IAC), AUTHOR,

“Are there any questions?”

Silence. Awkward fidgeting. Heads down to avoid eye contact.

If you’ve ever attended a meeting in any sizeable organization — from large town-hall type gatherings to small team talks or even one-on-one performance reviews, you are familiar with this scenario.

Are there any questions?” repeats the presenter, quite often the boss, expert or team leader hoping that somehow she has managed to stir your interest and engage your mind enough for you to want to step into conversation with her.

Any questions?”

Note that by now there is little more than an upwards inflection following these two words to make them a question and since the presenter is already starting to tidy up her papers and close her computer, the audience can stop holding their breath and can relax at the prospect of escaping the room without pressure to put their hand up.

End of meeting.

And yet, the presenter (let’s assume she was one of my executive coaching clients) comes to me afterwards with a common refrain: “No-one asked me any questions. They just sat there and no-one spoke. I don’t know if that means they were interested, if they understood what I presented or if they were just bored. How do I get them to speak up and participate?” 

At this point, I’ll ask my client, the presenter, to imagine she was in the audience. What,” I ask, do you experience when someone asks you “Are there any questions?

She pauses and starts to think…

I guess a couple of things come to mind,” she ponders, “such as:

  • who do you want to answer that?
  • what do you expect us to ask?
  • how silly will I look if I put my hand up?
  • should I ask a question to look good or spout off what I already know?
  • are you hoping that we all agree with you so don’t need to ask a question?” 

Is it likely that exactly the same thoughts are in your audience’s mind when you ask if they have any questions? Since you’ve asked it as a closed question, they might simply answer “yes” or “no, I don’t have any questions.” Where do you go from there? You can’t force them to have a question, can you? We are so habituated to the talk-style of meeting that asking for questions at the end of it has become little more than an unproductive habit. How might you break that habit and create a different dynamic in your meeting?

Please pause here for a moment to really ponder my question:

HOW MIGHT YOU ASK YOUR QUESTION DIFFERENTLY?

As you pause here, pay attention to how you’ve slowed down and created some space for yourself to think before answering. What do you hear? How does it feel to listen to your own inner voice of response?

Are you asking yourself a question? Maybe something along the following lines:

  • What question would encourage people to engage with me?
  • or “What do I really want to hear or know from my audience?”
  • or “How might I ask what they really think or feel about what I said?

CHANGE YOUR QUESTION AND CHANGE THE RESULT YOU GET. IT’S THAT SIMPLE.

What you get back, or don’t get, from people is directly related to the exact question you ask, or don’t ask. Ninety-nine percent of the time, our conversations are incomplete (sometimes they don’t even start) because we don’t slow down enough to craft an intentional and appropriately worded question:  a question that stops people in their tracks, that invites them to pause and really think about how they might answer it. A question that creates enough space for something new to happen. For an idea to occur. For their thoughts to process and create an inquiry. For them to come to a place of curiosity or intrigue and actually want to explore more.

In that place, just after you ask a great question, you find silence. Silence that invites you to wait for what wants to be heard. Crafting your question to create that silent space and listening fully into it is both powerful and efficient in engaging a response from your audience, your team or, yes, that individual in their one-on-one review conversation with you.

So next time you’re in a meeting or at the end of your presentation, how will you ask your question differently? 

Here are some options to experiment with:

  • “Where do you agree with what I’ve said?”
  • “What do you disagree with?”
  • “What excites you about this idea?”
  • “What worries or even scares you about this way forward?”
  • “What’s the one thing you want me to really hear and take on board at this time?”
  • “What have I missed, from your perspective?” 

Let your brain roll with this, and you’ll come up with many more dynamic questions. As you ask them, you’ll find that people start speaking up and looking forward to your meetings and engaging with your presentations.

I’d love to hear what questions you discover. Email me or share them here on the leading with questions blog. We just can’t get enough of the questions that shift behaviors that shift results.

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Aileen Gibb
My work has taken me around the globe and to conversations with people from many different nationalities, cultures and organisations. Wherever I've gone, the power of real conversation, founded on intentional listening and enlightened questioning, has been welcomed. It’s a core piece of our humanity to create the space for conversations that matter and to build connection and meaning with members of our family, our business and our communities.