If you could only teach one practice or skill that would transform the effectiveness of leaders and teams, what would it be? The ability to ask generative questions is a major training opportunity for many reasons:

  • Complex problems require many diverse minds and hearts.
  • No one shares the same reality.
  • You don’t know what you don’t know.
  • Assumptions always get us into trouble.
  • You don’t know what’s possible.
  • No one person has all the information.
  • New knowledge emerges in inquiry-based conversations.
  • Questions invite people in and encourage engagement.
  • Creativity and innovative thinking arise from disrupting the status quo.
  • Real connection and understanding require discovery.
  • Learning is essential to growth and prosperity.
  • Possibilities emerge in the midst of uncertainty.
  • People feel included when they are asked genuine, open-ended questions.
  • Generative questions say, “I value you, your ideas, your voice, your knowledge.”

Generative questions are open-ended and inspire conversation about what you want. All questions are tied to the personal mindset and intention of the person asking it. If you’re coming from a place of judgment and criticism, your question will carry a tone and direction that devalues the other person. For example, “Why do you always turn this in without the data sheets?” isn’t really a question. It’s a statement: “You never do this right; you should include the data sheets.” If a conversation ensues, it’s not likely to be one that strengthens the relationship or surfaces knowledge and understanding. Such questions are not generative.

Generative questions come from someone who’s adopted an attitude of curiosity. They ask questions for which they do not have answers, and they are genuinely interested in learning. The tone and direction of such questions land entirely differently. For example, when, “Why don’t you include the data sheets in these reports?” is asked with curiosity, the person hears a genuine question. The person asking learns: “We’ve been asked to cut back on unnecessary expenses, and I thought I would save paper, especially since most people don’t care about the details; they just want to know what the data says. I’ve summarized the data in the report and provided a link for an online reference in case someone wants to see the data sheets.”

Generative questions transform the effectiveness of leaders and teams. Here are two steps to the practice and art of asking generative questions.

1. Self-Questioning

As children, we were curious about everything, but at some point, we settled for the reality we were shown. We assume everyone has the same take on reality that we do, so we go about conversations and work without validating our assumptions. Here are a couple of experiential activities for cracking open the fierce hold our reality has on us.

  1. Find ambiguous but emotional photos, ideally where the real story is a surprise. Have each person write down three assumptions about the people in the photo and guess the story behind the photo. Then, have them share in groups of three or four. Ask each small group to share what they discovered about perception and reality. Share the real story.
  2. In groups of four to six, have participants read the following story, “The Plight of the Young Princess,” and then rank who is most responsible to least responsible for the plight of the young princess: the king, the queen, the princess, the friar and the evil sorcerer.The king was away from the castle on one of his many trips to visit all the villages in his kingdom. The young princess had been pestering her mother to let her go riding, and the queen finally gave in. The young princess rode off and soon realized she was lost. She stopped at a priory and asked the friar how to get back to the castle. The friar told her the shortest route was through the woods, even though he knew there was an evil sorcerer who lived there. En route through the woods, the princess came upon the evil sorcerer, who turned her into a frog.Each person will make a number of assumptions, which will only show up as they try to come to a consensus on who is most responsible for the princess’ plight. Argument and conflict, compromise, and giving in will ensue in order to accomplish the task. This activity is reflective of what happens in our lives and the workplace. At the first sign of conflict, we often dig in and defend our reality. How would things change if conflict were simply a signal that our realities differ, which means we need to ask questions?

2. Asking Generative Questions

When people realize how much of reality is subjective, that realization encourages uncertainty and curiosity, and asking questions is the natural response. Learning to ask questions first goes a long way toward eliminating conflict and helping leaders and teams make better decisions. Generative questions take different forms depending upon context and the purpose of a conversation. For example, if a team has run into a snag with a project, instead of looking for fault and blame, its members can ask questions such as these:

  • What is working well and contributing to our ability to meet deadlines?
  • What does each of us see as problematic for meeting the deadline?
  • How might we change what we’re doing in order to bypass those issues?
  • What resources do we need?

Team members might ask a different set of questions if they want to be more connected. At the closing of meetings, each team member might answer a question such as, “What are you looking forward to this week?”

Here are a couple of experiential activities to give people practice on beginning or shifting conversations with generative questions.

  1. Pull together a set of scenarios based on common problematic conversations that occur in your organization. They might include conversations where people devalue one another, where they dig in their heels and argue for their own point of view without listening to others, or where telling and advocating dominate. Invite small groups to change the tone and direction of those conversations by asking generative questions.
  2. Create a set of situations leaders or teams face and ask groups of three or four to generate two to three generative questions they might ask in each of the situations. Consider situations such as a new hire or new team member, problematic behavior, the need to solve a problem, the start of a new project or initiative, the need to innovate, the need to improve performance, low customer satisfaction, and employee evaluations.

It’s important to reinforce the idea that generative questions create a positive tone and direction. They help people receive more of what they want and move toward desired outcomes. Generative questions seek to uncover the best of what is, new knowledge and information, and creativity and possibility, and they seek to strengthen relationships and potential.

How would this simple training and development opportunity impact the conversations in your organization? Offer a workshop and find out!