I sometimes use this blog to talk about abstract ideas that seem only tangentially related to the fields of family business and family legacy. This will likely be one of those posts.
The genesis of the idea for this piece came back in October in London, at the FFI conference, when I was speaking with a friend and co-presenter about the role she plays on a family business’ board of directors.
During that conversation she related some feedback she got from the family patriarch, who told her that he liked the fact that she “asks great questions”, and, here is the good part, she “often doesn’t even care what the answers are”.
Of course I quickly thanked her for a great blog idea!
Reasons for Asking Questions
This of course got me to thinking about why people ask questions in the first place.
There are plenty of different reasons that people ask questions, depending on lots of different elements, and the context in which said questions are being asked.
But simple logic would seem to dictate that when someone asks a question, they are interested in the answer!
Indifference Versus “Not Caring”
But more importantly, I want to make it clear that neither he, nor she, nor I, believe that she truly doesn’t “care” what the answers are. It’s more about the fact that she is indifferent to the answer.
And that of course makes me think about how often people ask questions where they have a predetermined expected answer that you will either get “right” or “wrong”.
When you ask someone a question, there are literally an unlimited number of ways you can phrase it. And we won’t even get into the tone of voice and other non-verbal aspects, because that could be a whole other blog, or even a book.
Those who have taken coaching courses have learned that there are certain types of questions that typically yield better results, and I’m pretty sure that these are the kinds that my colleague uses in her role on the board of that family business.
Most people have heard about the idea of avoiding questions that can be answered with Yes or No, i.e. open ended questions. That’s a great start, and it also requires that you then listen to the answer, which will then be longer than a single word.
Don’t Ask Why
Another “rule” that I try to hold myself to is not to ask questions that start with “Why”.
Even though it’s not always the case, very often the person hearing a question that starts with “Why” will feel put on the defensive, and feel the need to “explain themselves”.
When people answer questions from a defensive stance, it doesn’t necessarily add to a productive discussion.
If you truly want to understand what someone was thinking, because you are curious, and not simply judging them, there are better ways to ask these types of questions.
What and How
Simply abolishing the word “why” and replacing it with a much softer “what” or “how” can make a surpringly big difference.
“How did you come to the decision to do that?” or “What was going on at the time that lead to that decision” are not that much different in terms of the insights that the asker of the question wants to know.
But these last two questions will likely land much more softly, and in turn yield a more useful answer, that can then send the conversation into a more positive direction.
Past Versus Future
A board of directors will normally spend much of their time looking to the future rather than dwelling on the past, and this is where some really interesting opportunities for questions can arise.
Some of the best will start with “What if…” and they bring up many possibilities that make people think about what could be.
Whatever the circumstance or context, the best questions are usually driven by real curiosity, and not with any judgement.
This is sometimes easier said than done, but like most things, practice makes you better at it.
The curious attitude of the questioner usually comes through loud and clear.