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Questions and Collaboration

This article was first published in the Maverick Paradox Online Magazine August 2020

Questions and Collaboration…

“We live in worlds our questions create”

David Cooperrider

We all know the stereotype of the persuasive individual – armed with all the arguments, they hold their ground, argue their point and, whether they are right or wrong, come to prevail.

For Socialised Mavericks [1], persuasion doesn’t really work like that. In fact: in order to generate effective change, it pays to ask more questions, advocate fewer opinions.

This is not new news. In a classic international study in 1978 , British researchers Neil Rackham and John Carlisle found that experienced negotiators asked more questions, spoke less and listened more than their less experienced colleagues. Those new to the game tended to continue advocating too long. In doing so, they cluttered the argument and failed to garner key information from their counterparts. What is more, the experienced negotiators were more likely to win more concessions and still maintain good relationships; they did not hack their important customers or suppliers off.

Some commentators go even further. When dealing with the most important conversations at work – and in life – Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations, memorably advocates: “Only ask questions.” And then – what? Her answer – let silence do the work. She advocates time in important conversations to just let the words sink in, the mental processing take place and the answers develop. It’s too easy to fill the gaps.

Questions and Collaboration… I’m reminded of an important client meeting that I attended early in my career, as a colleague supporting a rather voluble account manager. It was at the client’s very expensive offices in Primrose Hill, London. A five-figure proposal was on the table. Knowing that the client liked to talk a lot too, I counselled my colleague: “present our proposal and then, just shut up.” I threatened, if necessary, to kick him under the table if he wittered on. Thankfully, he didn’t.

The client paused. And thought. And stayed quiet an uncomfortable minute or two longer.

My colleague fidgeted and I gave him a hard stare. After what felt like a really, really long time, the client went to talk to his finance colleague in the next room. Five equally quiet minutes later, he emerged. “If you can do this and this, then you have a deal.”

We could. My colleague had the sale.

Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, whose lifetimes’ work have been about how organisations learn, describe two types of leadership approach. One, which is like our stereotypical “persuader”, is where the leader needs to feel right. They advocate their views and expect others to follow. Like many Extreme Mavericks [2], these leaders expect to be in control and to always be right. In the view of Argyris and Schön, this is “single loop” approach – there is very little learning. They are either right or wrong.

They contrast this with the leader who asks lots of questions, in a search for the best available answers. In this more Socialised Maverick style, the assumption is that the answers are in the room, or there to be created. In the course of asking questions, a “double loop” is created where learning takes place for everyone involved, including the leader.

Questions and Collaboration…

What constitutes a good question? I’ve been asked this question many times in the context of the work I have done in collaboration, coaching and change. There seem to be a number of consistent threads.

When forming a relationship and getting to the heart of the problem, it is worth asking lots of information gathering questions. It’s almost always useful to know what people have already done – or considered doing. Ask how, what, when and who. By all means ask why too, but when you ask this, be selective – you want to get to root causes, not to provoke defensiveness, justification or unhelpful rationalisation.

Listen. William Ury, a renowned researcher on influence, negotiation and collaboration, says that everyone should be taught to listen properly in early life, just like they learn to read. “Listening is how you read people.”

Ury advocates the use of open questions that encourage a range of choices, rather than assume a limited range of responses. In business conversations, as in coaching, open questions can generate unexpected and valuable answers. They also cement relationships because people are more likely to feel like their opinions are being sought. Lace these open questions with occasional probes to test the assumptions: trust and verify, asking through honest and open enquiry for examples and evidence. There is a question in every coach’s playbook that encourages this exploration of alternatives: “and what else?”

Research by coaching expert and Maverick Paradox Magazine contributor Dr. Glenn Wallis shows that experienced questioners start to become almost unconscious of what questions they ask – they just “bubble up” at the right time. This takes practice. Over the course of a conversation, they start to move towards a future orientation – towards action.

Questions and Collaboration…

What are the options? Where do you want to go from here?

The payoff for good questions is immense. Whether in commercial partnerships, relationships with colleagues or in learning and development, Socialised Mavericks learn that asking good questions, and listening carefully to the answers, is one of the most important skills they can choose to practice and develop.

And if the question doesn’t work? Try a different one!

Examples of open questions

Using the TED mnemonic – open questions that consciously employ the words Tell – Explain – Describe:

  • tell me what you’ve done so far

  • can you explain what’s been going on with XX…

  • describe the situation with YY…

Other open questions:

  • what are your feelings about how things are around around this topic?

  • what’s the context for the challenge that you are experiencing?

  • what’s going on in the wider system?

  • what’s your confidence now that if you do what you have said, you will get the outcome you need?

  • what would you need to do differently to increase your confidence around this?

  • what support will you need from me? and who else could help?

  • what question do you need to be asking yourself most as you progress with this?


[1] [2] Socialised Maverick, Extreme Maverick – Germain J, The Maverick Paradox: The Secret Power Behind Successful Leaders, PublishNation 2017

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