What’s in a Question?

Lane (Pearce) Pierce (yes, my married name is only different by one letter!), daughter of Deborah Pearce, is a learning and development professional at Kohl's Department Stores.

Working for a company that has over 100,000 employees, I estimate that more than 90% of my work is done in partnership with others.  I must assert my opinion, yet not be too forceful.  I must provide clarity and direction while also engaging others.  I walk this line everyday, and have only recently realized I’ve developed a bad habit… and it sounds something like this:

Me: “Do you think we should include HR in this decision?”
Meaning: I think we should include HR in this decision.

Me: “Are you sending this communication weekly?”
Meaning: I think we should send this communication weekly.

Me: “Do you think this template is too bold?”
Meaning: I think this template is too bold.

And on it goes…

I didn’t realize this habit had formed until I asked my husband (of three months), “Are you planning on writing thank you notes for your Christmas gifts?”

He kindly responded, “Are you really asking me, or are you telling me you think I should write thank you notes?”

The jig was up.

Somehow I had formed the belief that by posing my opinion/request/belief in a question, I was influencing others to see things my way.  In reality, it was coming across as an indirect,  leading statement.

There is no doubt that asking questions can be one of the most powerful ways to engage others.  The lesson I have learned, though, is to ask a question only when I am genuinely interested in and open to the answer.

I have found other ways of asserting my opinion while still keeping the door open for dialogue:

“I think it would wise to include HR in this decision.”
“It seems to me a weekly communication makes sense.”
“In my opinion, this template it too bold.”
“As a family, I’d like to send thank you notes for gifts we receive.”

And then, once my opinion is clearly out there, I can ask the most important question of all – “What do you think?”

I once heard a psychologist say that he believed 90% of questions are really statements.  Do you agree?

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2 Responses to What’s in a Question?

  1. Bea Larsen says:

    Interesting proposal, Lane, not to use questions to indirectly manipulate another. As a mediator, I live by questions (usually open ended) to avoid allowing my judgments to creep in. Quite different from the role of manager. I like your approach. Are you now using it and receiving a more positive response?

  2. Lane Pierce says:

    Hi Bea,

    Yes, I am trying to be more cognizant of the questions I ask – Although, like any habit, I’m still in the process of adjusting my behavior. I caught myself asking a leading question to my mom, Debbie, just the other day!

    In the many conversations/meetings/group discussions I have been a part of at work lately, I’ve been more direct in sharing my opinion. I still use cues to allow for discussion such as “in my opinion,” “I’m starting to think…” to make sure it’s clear I’m not speaking in absolutes – just expressing my opinion. The response from others has been positive – at times almost looking like relief – because now we have a more concrete thought to discuss (I notice anxiety in teams when there are too many questions and not enough answers). I still ask questions in my work – all the time. Now, my questions are much more focused on eliciting thoughts from others, as opposed to finding a way to share my own.

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