I first heard the phrase--"questions in service of the asked"--as a participant in a workshop with Essential Partners, originally the Public Conversations Project, in Boston. It took me some time--and a lot of practice--to figure out what it meant and how to do it.
I've written previously about the power of inquiry, curiosity and discovery, of asking useful questions, and of acknowledging what you hear to make sure the "asked" knows you're listening. After almost 25 years of teaching, coaching, and my own experience in conflict situations (yes, I have them, too), I can still get stuck on what questions to ask. What would help unravel this conflict knot? How can I better see where this person is coming from? What needs to happen here to find resolution?
In Service of the Asked
When I talk about these kinds of questions--questions that would serve my conflict partner--here's what I mean:
- What will help them reflect on their thinking and what's most important to them?
- Does this question show respect?
- Is this really a question, or is it a statement pretending to be a question?
- Am I making any assumptions when asking this question?
- Will the question build trust or barriers?
- Does my question open a door for the asked. Does it expand or clarify?
- Is it a question that is interesting to the asked?
Possible examples of questions in service of the asked:
- Please tell me how you see things.
- What is the solution from your point of view?
- How have I contributed to the problem? How have I helped?
- What would you have us do differently?
- What one thing is most interesting to you about the situation as it stands today?
- How would you like to tell this story a year from now?
- What would an ideal outcome look like?
- If you had three wishes, what would they be?
The most important thing is to put yourself in a curious state of mind. Really be curious about the speaker and how they see things. And don't underestimate the power of questions in solving the puzzle.
When you see, hear or feel yourself going into "sell" mode, you know you've become too self-focused. The Harvard Business Review article "Ask Better Questions" by professors Leslie K. John and Alison Wood Brooks, suggests we make it easy for the speaker to tell us what's hard to disclose. This happens more easily when you adopt a mindset of curiosity and respect.
Finally, don't stop with just one question. Follow-up questions help you go deeper and show you're listening and care about what you're hearing.
According to the HBR authors, "Asking questions rarely hurts" the situation, and often turns a competitive conversation into a cooperative one.
I hope this helps you turn your next "difficult" conversation into a learning experience.