When Good Questions Go Bad

This post was inspired by separate conversations with several of my clients who share a certain behavior that can offend people. Since it’s a behavior that I can relate with all too well, I decided to share some thoughts on it. Enjoy!

I recently had a new a-ha moment—I realized that a particular behavior of mine (and which has very benign, even positive, intentions behind it) really offends some people. Whoa. It’s one thing when a laugh gets misinterpreted, or a particular action (or lack of action) is perceived as meaning something I never intended. It’s another when you discover that a regular behavior with genuinely positive intentions actually hurts someone. Ouch!

The behavior I’m talking about is “questioning.” Asking good questions is an important skill for leaders. We’ve got to have clear information so that quality decisions can be made. When someone makes a recommendation for action, we need to make sure that the logic behind it is appropriate and defensible. If we really want to solve long-term, complex problems, we’ve got to get to the heart of the issue. All of this happens through questioning, so we need to make sure we’re doing it properly.

As an avid questioner, here’s how I think and show up. I am motivated to come up with the best decision, and so I like to understand the thinking behind recommendations and ideas—what leads you to that position, what are the benefits, what are you considering (and perhaps not considering), what concerns you about the context or implications of a decision? Thinking is fascinating to me, and I always learn something new when people share their thinking process with me—I discover something new to consider for future decisions. It’s a fun challenge for me to get into someone else’s perspective, and I crave this kind of discussion. My intention is not to debate right and wrong, rather it’s to expand the bigger perspective to help inform the best possible decision.

While all the above is interesting to me, it can make others very uncomfortable. It’s easy for me to forget that some people are more interested in harmony—it’s exhausting to them to answer my questions, and it just feels to them that I’m trying to win an argument. And if I question someone in an uncomfortable context—in front of others, when they’re fatigued or overwhelmed—it can create quite an impasse. Though internally I’m not rejecting them or their ideas, my asking questions sends that very signal to certain folks and can result in them shutting down. Whoa.

When I encountered this recently with a peer, I got a real eye-opener: I had become so fascinated with the logic of her suggestion and motivated by making the best quality decision, that I completely overlooked the lack of harmony in our relationship at the moment. My question-asking met complete resistance until I acknowledged how she was feeling and how I had impacted her.

Your coaching assignment for the week: Notice yourself asking questions. Become aware of your tone and body language. Observe how others respond to your questioning behavior.

What have you noticed about your questioning behavior and how it is received by others? What have you done to change your behavior or how it’s perceived?

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