Are you Asking Me or Telling Me! ?

5th October, 2014

Are you asking me or telling me Elizabeth?

This is a phrase mum used to use when I would inflect my tone at the end of a statement in place of a “tag question” such as “y’see” or “y’know” or “right?”

I learned at a very young age that to offer a stance with any credibility in our household, it was going to be useful to differentiate precisely when I was making a statement –tonality and body language playing an important part of this.

In fact this topic of conversation is often raised when working with business start up groups and employability skills groups when coaching relating to influence, presentation or negotiation skills.

Ironically this blog is about the exact opposite, it relates to the times we might find ourselves asking a loaded question…  Asking  non-question if you like!

Y’know the kind? … The kind where there is an assumed answer – like the one I just asked… where the “right” answer was “of course we know the kind Lizzi”!

I am going to clarify further, since technically the previous example was more of a rhetorical or a leading question with a pretty overt desired response.

Loaded questions on the other hand (in the context of this blog) relate to the times we ask a question which on the surface seems unbiased and yet we are more secretly hoping that the response takes a particular direction.

Sometimes, it must be said, we might not even be consciously aware that we are seeking a “right answer”, until a less desirable response is offered, leaving us experiencing and no doubt showing our distaste for the “wrong answer”.

Loaded questions are often offered can be offered with positive intent for example:

  • To build a case or argument
  • To motivate and encourage
  • To reassure the asker that others agree with them.

Fairly harmless… Who knows? Are they helpful… Possibly not!

Different Perspectives are helpful

If we are genuinely open and curious to explore the perspectives of others then their response, whatever it is, cannot possibly be favourable or unfavourable.

What if we don’t know we are doing it?  We might not be aware that we are asking loaded questions.  A good indicator is to observe the reactions of those we ask.

  • Do they appear to be tentative with their answers?
  • Are they adding an “is that right?” to the end of their statements, or inflecting and seeking validation that what they have offered is acceptable?

It is exactly this less deliberate use of loaded questions which prompted the topic to buzz around my head.  I was supporting a client and their team exploring cultural identity within their business, the aim was to ensure a voice for all and there appeared to be no covert plan from the leadership team to manipulate individual responses.

And yet…  Each time the MD asked for input, many responded with high degrees of doubt, even when their opinions were being openly sought… It was as if a pattern of “second guessing” had emerged.

Looking closely enough, the verbal and non-verbal signals were there.  Through addressing HOW questions were asked and responded to, we gradually encouraged more and more enthusiasm to contribute.

Questioning without judgement is a skill all leaders can benefit from developing if they are to truly leverage the potential of their teams rather than simply having their own opinions reflected back to them.

Why… bother addressing this?

If we want our teams (or our customers for that matter) to let us know exactly what they think then we must be aware and manage HOW we ASK and RESPOND

Think about the last time you were on the receiving end of a loaded question.

  • How was it for you?
  • What level of inclusion did it promote?

Questions can be both motivational and limiting… and I guess the point is… regardless of our tonal inflection… What we ask, often is not really a question at all.

Where they are limiting, the dangers of not adapting our style are many… for example:

  • People will be reticent to share views and even if they do not consciously register this shutting down of their perspective, they will almost certainly stop proactively offering it.
  • We will encourage a culture of fence sitting and thus reduce our potential to really push boundaries.
  • If seeking client and customer feedback we will collude with our own views, making the seeking of their assessment a redundant process.
  • With children we will fail to empower them, resulting in a decreased ability to be decisive when facing uncertainty.

The list goes on.

So what and now what?

From my perspective – if we become curious about our questioning skills and regularly challenge whether a question or statement is most appropriate we can potentially achieve two aims:

Enhancing our credibility and impact AND enabling others to do the same.

Let me know if you have any insights in this area… ?

About Lizzi Larbalestier

Professional Blue Health Coach, mBIT and NLP trainer specialising in coastal coaching. Creating meaningful conversations, facilitating action and change for the results that you deserve. #bluehealthcoach #oceanempathy #bluemind