Inquiry as Influence: An Ancient Technology 2.0

The least used and one of the most productive tools for conversation is high-level questioning. But for a number of reasons, questioning has always gotten short shrift. Traditionally, asking questions is thought of as revealing your incompetence, which is then rewarded with a loss of influence. Even today, when the need ought to be obvious, few actually get questioning. Neither yesterday’s traditionalist nor today’s knowledge worker understands that questioning is a linguistic device that can make great contributions to the organization—and grant profound influence and power to the individual.

All questions are speech actions that affect the way individuals and teams organize their thinking about people, problems, and processes. The better questions can often positively impact personal influence, relationships, team focus, team organization, strategies, priorities, motivation, and decisionmaking. In short, higher order questions can have a huge role in shaping both our thought and our behavior.

Not all questions are created equal. John Hagel has written that the greatest value and personal power in today’s environment comes from questions that no one had even thought to ask but that help to focus attention on promising but previously ignored areas. Although those issues require more complex thinking and very thoughtful formatting, let’s begin with the basics.

All question formats overlap and morph from the basic information question resulting in variations of shape, objective and consequences. Their success is determined by the professional’s competence with question framing, audience adaptability and situational knowledge.

Information questions. The most familiar shape of question is the request for information. The speaker wants to know something and assumes the hearer has the information. “Would you like a glass of wine?” But depending on the context, the basic question can be used to test, challenge and control as a teacher, a lawyer, an executive might intend. It easily becomes an exercise of power over others. In other kinds of situations, the information question might have the intention of surfacing creative options and affirming the competency of the listener. Knowing how your audience will respond is often the key to successful use of the information question. Sometimes the information question moves into a focus format.

Focus questions. Especially in team settings, a facilitator or even a member of the team might summarize a discussion with a focus question. “Based on our conversation thus far, what do you see as the implications of each of these tentative solutions?” This format typically takes control of a discussion, reordering and facilitating it in the direction preferred by the questioner. Focus questions are inevitably power oriented.

Intervention/subversive questions. Intervention questions are especially useful when a team is wandering or when a person is attempting to control the agenda. Typically, the subversive question hitchhikes on something a controlling person has said but asks a more relevant question that needs to be addressed. “I agree, John, that this approach will handle a number of our problems. But what happens if we fail to . . . ?” Subversive questions are useful for wresting control from others and forcing the other to think about different issues. Influence questions. It’s important to recognize that though we ask questions to get answers, the implicit purpose of a question may strongly support other agendas.

Like intervention and subversive questions, the overt form and purpose of a question may be quite different than its implicit purpose. This “pull” can be useful in the future. Formatting questions like those in the list below can connect people and exercise influence beyond your initial resources. In addition to impacting organizational strategy, this creates a personal influence that is much more effective than simply having the correct answers to questions.

Major influence questions. Fundamentally, also, the formats below can invite others to explore a new domain, and as Hagel has written, help to generate new ideas and insights. Hagel proposes that in today’s environment there are four especially valued questions:

–Questions that have the greatest potential to influence are broad ones that create space for many people across many different domains and disciplines to participate.

— Questions where there’s a lot at stake, where enormous value and wealth can be generated by those who are most successful in generating insight.

–Deep questions that call for sustained effort over a long period of time to generate insight. They are the questions that will keep a growing number of people occupied for many, many years.

–Questions that can be tackled without massive investment of funds and years of effort before any insight is generated. The best kinds of questions are the ones where early “a-ha” moments can occur so that early participants in the questions can get positive reinforcement for their efforts and yet at the same time realize that there is so much more to be explored.

By focusing on questions rather than on answers, professionals will find powerful dynamics where learning and innovation are set into motion. Indeed, often the most modest approach to problems through the power of questions can quickly cascade into significant impact that affects the organization’s bottom line in surprising profitability. Furthermore, hard core questioning expertise can provide the personal power and influence that’s best suited to today’s world.

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