A few years ago, I went by another name for a couple of weeks, Juror Number One. It was a medical malpractice lawsuit, and I was fascinated by the jury selection process. The quality of their questions determined the mix of people who held the power. In my opinion, their questions were crappy.
The defense asked…
“Do you have a doctor in your immediate family.”
I answered the question asked.
“Yes. My father.”
By the time prospective jurors in the teens and twenties answered, if they had a second cousin once removed who worked in the medical profession, everyone knew about it. No surprise, they were not selected to serve on the jury.
Neither legal team circled back to broaden their definition of immediate family for all the potential jurors nor did they ask if anyone had an association with the hospital. They also didn’t ask how those relationships, if any, may stop a potential juror from keeping an open mind on the case. Guess nobody cared that my uncle was Chief of Obstetrics at the same hospital as the doctor who was on trial.
They also never asked the question…
“Are you familiar with anyone on the legal team?”
I was 95% sure I was at a party with one of the younger lawyers on the defense team when we were both in High School. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I had a vision of him drinking a beer or two when he was underage. We weren’t friends, so it didn’t really matter, but I spent a lot of time trying to remember his name and thought about digging out old yearbooks.
It wouldn’t have surprised if he recognized me too, but he was the junior lawyer at the table, mostly taking notes, and nobody asked his input. It didn’t come up.
Questions asked and omitted would determine what happened next. I was selected and served for over a week before the case settled. I should never have served on that jury.
The Quality of a Leader’s Questions Matters
We like to think that leadership is all about doing; action taken, issues resolved. In reality, effective leadership is also about learning. Leaders need to understand the landscape, challenges, roadblocks, opportunities, and ideas. How? They ask great questions.
Unfortunately, not all leaders have mastered the concept of “great questions” and end up asking questions that match their desired answers. Their questions validate the course of action that they want to take. They don’t seek to understand, they ask to confirm.
Other leaders ask questions to gather information so they can make a final decision. Just the facts, ma’am.
Even fewer ask: What do you think? What am I missing?
The Power of Questions: Closed Questions vs. Open-Ended Questions
During the jury selection, more important than the questions that they didn’t ask, was the kind of questions that they did ask. They were all closed questions.
Closed Questions: A simple yes or no can answer the question. They can be answered in a single word.
Do you think that’s a good idea?
Can we move on?
Open-Ended Questions: Tell you about what someone thinks because you ask them to elaborate. It takes more than one word to answer.
What do you think we need to explore further?
How would you approach the situation?
Why would you take that path?
It all comes down to this: It’s impossible to understand how people think unless you ask. The most powerful questions for leaders (and lawyers during voir dire) are open-ended questions.
Tips for Open-Ended Questions for Leaders
There’s room for both styles of questions in your life and leadership but learning to ask open-ended questions consistently will transform your leadership, communication, and relationships.
First, be aware of how your questions influence the answer. Lead with curiosity and put aside your desire to confirm.
After you’ve asked your open-ended question, stop talking! This may seem obvious, but if you cut someone off or ask another leading question, you’ll never get the full picture.
Open-ended questions challenge team members to have opinions, articulate their perspectives, and flex their leadership. That’s what every leader wants – a team of thinkers who are empowered to ideate and create stronger outcomes.
Lastly, when you’re coaching team members, focus on open-ended questions too. Their observations and insights matter, not only your experience and know-how.
Did you know?: You can spot an open-ended question by the first word – most often it’s what, how or why.
Is your default asking open-ended questions or is your M.O. questioning to confirm?
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