Jan Hills writes on neuroscience and how it can improve personal performance, team performance, organisational outcomes and leadership behaviour. She has had a varied career in HR, including over 10 years as a consultant and coach. Jan now runs Head Heart + Brain, a consultancy dedicated to brain-savvy HR and to improving all aspects of the organisation through the findings of neuroscience.
When working with HR business partners we are often asked how they can become more strategic in the business.
Our rather simple answer is to ask more questions.
But not any old questions – strategic questions. We define these questions as ‘those which move the client to new insights or a new perspective.’ They direct their mind to a different place, a new way of looking at an issue, a place where they see possibilities or generate new ideas.
These types of questions have the following characteristics:
- They provoke the individual to think more broadly about a subject – on a “big picture” level.
- They are future focused; they tend to direct the individual to think about future activity or states.
- They encourage the individual to make connections at a high level.
- They tend to start with a what, when, how or which rather than with why. Questions beginning with why can take people back rather than forwards and can be perceived as aggressive. Use them sparingly.
- They are proactive – anticipating future trends or themes.
- They link to the strategy of the business or the leader’s ambitions.
One caveat; no matter how powerful your questions, they won’t work unless you are in rapport and curious.
Asking questions so that you can move someone towards an answer you think you already know never works. The leader’s unconscious mind will pick up on your intentions and create resistance.
The best approach is to get yourself into a state of curiosity. That way you will be asking questions and responding to the answer, not mentally planning your next question.
Why are questions so powerful?
As humans we seem to be ‘programmed’ to want to answer or at least explore a question. Questions are a powerful yet informal tool and are usually less aggressive than a statement. (I am assuming here that you can get the tone of voice right.)They also focus the other person’s mind in a new direction.
Take this example. Imagine you are playing tennis. You are having a really good game and when you take a break your opponent casually says ‘you are having a great game, how are you doing it?’ Immediately your mind starts to dissect your game.
Once you begin to do this, chances are you also start to drop the odd serve and miss a shot you should have got. The act of directing you to what you are doing can destroy your concentration or at least have you focused on the wrong thing – how you are being successful rather than the ball. This ability to focus the mind is the power of questions.
Now your tennis friend may have asked innocently or may have been very cleverly putting you off you game. Whatever your friend’s intention the story illustrates the power of questions. You can use them to help business leaders solve problems and gain yourself more credibility.
By using questions you can direct thinking to achieve business goals, get people moving in the right direction, and free up more creative ideas. Developing skills to ask these types of questions is really important for business partners, and indeed anyone else in HR.