Questions that Drive Conversations

online conversation

online conversation“Sounds like a great plan. Does anyone disagree?” It’s a question that makes me cringe every time I hear it. The fellow introverts on the call all glance at one another to see if any of them will be brave enough to share their thoughts. And some of the extroverts ponder expressing disagreement, but weigh it against their desire to wrap up the meeting quickly and return to their growing workload. After a few seconds of silence, the leader takes silence as agreement and moves on. Weeks later when the plan falls apart, everyone wonders what happened.

Building a team that feels comfortable expressing disagreement takes time and effort.

  • First, leaders must build a foundation of trust and psychological safety so team members can be confident that their contributions will be valued. They need to know that expressing an opposing point of view won’t result in damaged relationships or retaliation. Building this kind of trust with a new team will take time. It is helpful to set ground rules for group discussions that encourage healthy exchanges of ideas. For example, create space for a judgment free zone. No ideas are bad ideas during the idea generation phase. Ensure that everyone’s voice is valued and respected. Over time, and by modeling the behavior yourself, everyone will become more comfortable with contributing new and conflicting ideas.
  • Next, think carefully about the way you word your questions. Ask questions that drive further thought and discussion versus driving for early consensus. Here are some questions to elicit critical thinking:
    • – What are some challenges we might encounter with this plan?
    • – What else do we know about the situation?
    • – Is there anyone else who might offer a new perspective on this challenge?
    • – What are the risks associated with our plan?
    • – How will we define our success?
    • – What assumptions have we made along the way?
    • – Is there some way for us to confirm those assumptions?
    • – What are our unknowns and how can we minimize them?
    • – Do we know enough to move forward?
    • – What role will each of you play to ensure this is successful?

Each of these questions should help encourage deeper thought into the plan. The questions are open-ended and seek to create an environment where everyone is more informed. If someone does have concerns, they’re more likely to respond to these critical thinking questions than “…does anyone disagree.” And everyone is more likely to listen when the discussion is in an information gathering/evaluation stage than at the conclusion where the leader is driving for consensus.

  • Finally, leverage silence as often as possible. While silence can be uncomfortable for everyone, it is also an incredibly powerful tool. We are naturally inclined to disrupt awkward silence by filling it with our thoughts. Effective leaders ask questions and then refrain assuming that silence implies agreement. Sometimes it takes an awkward silence before a person will gain the courage to speak up or ask a question. That voice will go un-heard if silence is interpreted as agreement. And that one voice may be the difference between a plan’s ultimate success or failure.