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Creating a Question-Friendly Environment

Questions are the basis of all creativity.
Questions are the basis of all connection.
Questions are the basis of all understanding.

The challenge is creating a question-friendly environment.

Although you have little (or no) control over the people in the environment, you do have (some) control over the environment itself.


And that’s why you need to let things organically and naturally occur, organically and naturally .

If you create the right kind of environment, the right atmosphere, the right space and the right energy, the people inside of it will take care of themselves.

This doesn’t mean “getting” employees to ask questions. This means creating an environment in which questions can be comfortably asked and answered.

If you want to build this type of environment, there are four key tasks ahead:

1. List the reasons why employees might (not) ask questions.
2. Maintain a question-friendly attitude.
3. Affirm your employees when they ask questions.
4. Reinforce a question-friendly environment.

Identifying Barriers to Question Asking
Creating a question-friendly environment begins with identifying barriers to question asking.

This is one of my favorite questions to ask my audiences in my seminars:  Why don’t people ask questions? There are lots of potential answers:

1. They don’t want to look stupid.
2. They don’t want to hear the answer.
3. They don’t want to share responsibility.
4. They don’t want to waste someone’s time.
5. They don’t want to appear in need of help.
6. They don’t want to risk ridicule and rejection.
7. They don’t want the other person to lose face.
8. They don’t want to hold up the discussion or class.
9. They don’t want to question authority or the challenge the status quo.
10. They don’t want to rock the boat, ruffle the feathers or commit one of those other clichéd corporate sins.
11. They fear being politically incorrect.
12. They fear going deep inside the issue.
13. They fear making a big mess and getting in trouble.
14. They fear their questions (and the answers) will later be used against them.
15. They have low self-esteem.
16. They have (not) discovered a safe place to be vulnerable.
17. They think it’s the wrong time to ask.
18. They think they know the answer already.
19. They think the answer will be threatening.
20. They think their questions will be threatening.
21. They think their questions aren’t good questions.
22. They think that everyone else in the room already understands everything.
23. They want to protect their self-image.
24. They want to avoid change (or BEING) changed.
25. They want to sidestep psychological pressure.
26. They want to steer clear of any threats to formality.
27. They want to avoid reflexive resistance to (perceived) interrogation.
28. They want to maintain control of the conversation.
29. They associate question asking with conflict.
30. They were in trouble, victimized or frightened.
31. They were highly emotional and not thinking clearly.
32. They were ridiculed when they questioned in the past.
33. They were never educated on the topic of asking questions.
34. They were put on the spot and couldn’t think of anything to ask.
35. They were talking to someone really smart whom they thought knew best.
36. They were never given permission—directly or indirectly—to ask questions.
37. They were told NOT to question by parents, teachers, peers, religious or authority figures and other childhood influencers.

Of course, those aren’t the only reasons employees don’t ask questions. 

However, by first identifying the obstacles and objections to questioning, you calm the silent dialogues that often prevent questions from being articulated.

Adopting a Question-Friendly Attitude
Here’s how:
—Think verbs, not nouns.
—Think dialogue, not debate.
—Think searching, not snooping.
—Think curious, not judgmental.
—Think insinuating, not imposing.
—Think harmonizing, not manipulating.

See, inasmuch as questioning is valuable, it’s not really about finding the answer. In fact, it’s not really about asking the question, either! It’s about the process:
—Encouraging of diverse viewpoints
—Admitting that there are multiple solutions to every problem

So, seek conclusions not to elevate yourself above everyone, but to bring us all closer together. Make sure you maintain a questioning-friendly attitude.  It will shape all future questions, conversations and question-friendly environments. You don’t need suggestion box—you need a question box!

Reinforcing the questions.
You must give employees reminders that they work in a question-friendly environment.  So, here’s a list of observable actions and “phrases that payses” to reinforce your commitment to approachability:
1. Make anonymity optional.  Go back to your recent list of barriers to asking questions.  As you probably learned, it’s important to give employees, customers and members the option to remain nameless. This will increase the probability of a question being asked. 

For example, you could introduce an anonymous question box, a secure online forum, or a name changing policy for all questioners.

REMEMBER: people tend to speak up when their name isn’t on the line.

2. Diffuse defensiveness.  Yes, it always exists.  Consider these suggestions:

  • Instead of saying, “Does anybody have any questions?” consider saying, “What questions do you have?” It’s less threatening.
  • Encourage people to write their questions on cards ahead of time and pass them to the front. This approach is less aggressive and diverts attention so people aren’t put on the spot.
  • If you’re holding a group meeting, having a one-on-one interview or delivering a speech, make sure to say, “We’ll have plenty of time for questions at the end!” or “Feel free to ask questions at any time.” That way people can prepare themselves.

REMEMBER: your primary task is to make the other person(s) feel comfortable.

3. Post past questions. On your Website, in your marketing materials, and all around your facility, post lists of frequently (and infrequently) asked questions and their answers. 

This accomplishes several goals. First, it’s a visual representation of your question-friendly environment. Second, it immediately addresses the key issues faced by the people you serve. Third, it builds a foundation of comfort and enables people to move past their primary concerns. 

Ultimately, your employees and members will start to ask more specific, more penetrating questions, now that they’ve been given permission to do so.

REMEMBER: ask the first question and people will follow.

4. Be curious, not judgmental. Honestly ask yourself: Are you genuinely curious to hear people’s answers? If not, don’t bother asking. We live in a “gotcha” culture.  It’s easy for people to presume that your questions are just a means to an end, just a way to catch them in the act.

So, give signals to people that you’re their partner, not persuader. Prove to them that questioning is merely a small part of the discovery process. That way, they’ll perceive your questions as helpful, not threatening; curious, not interrogating.

REMEMBER: ask with the intent to listen and learn, not to control the conversation.

OK, let’s review!

You learned that creating a question-friendly environment (QFE) requires three essentials:

It STARTS with understanding the barriers. Listing the reasons why people might (not) ask questions.

It CONTINUES with modifying your attitude. Being curious. Being always watchful and open for better conclusions.

It ENDURES with observable actions.  Doing (not just saying) specific things that enable and reinforce a question friendly environment.

If you can understand and practice these key ideas, you’ll be certain to uncover the answers you're looking for. Keep curiosity burning!

About the Author(s)

Scott Ginsberg aka, "The Nametag Guy," is the author of 12 books, including The Approachable Manager and -Able: 35 Strategies for Increasing the Probability of Success in Business and in Life, from which this article is excerpted. He is a professional speaker, award-winning blogger, and the creator of NametagTV.com. For more information, visit: http://www.hellomynameisscott.com/