Harvard Business Review: The 5 most important questions to ask

I recently read an article on leadership in the Harvard Business Review. The article talked about asking questions. At first glance, the idea seems simple. But when you step back and start to think about it, the issue gets much more complicated.

Tom, my business partner, once worked as a private tutor for freshmen and sophomore high school students. He once told me a story about how his students – typically very intelligent and capable kids – would find some of his assignments very difficult. The assignments that were most troublesome were not of the typical “read and regurgitate” variety. Tom’s assignments forced the students to really think about the topic and then simply write down questions – not the answers – about what were the most important parts of the topic to learn about. This very simple concept drove his students bonkers.

As a business leader, a dentist will likely have years of experience and the confidence of success, and an easy trap to fall into is to think that part of your portfolio is to always have the right answers. But great leaders must inspire the same curiosity, creativity, and deep thinking in their employees that great teachers inspire in their students – and that all begins with asking the right questions.

Answers are only as good as the question asked.

Yet, as Tom’s students and your employees may attest, asking a good question is not an easy task. It requires a look beyond the obvious. It requires intellectual courage to pose hard questions without feeling defensive. And it requires the proper mindset – a beginner’s mind – to be open to new ideas and to question assumptions. It requires being willing to listen and the tenacity to keep digging.

The HBR article suggests that there are only five essential questions in life. What do you think?

“Wait, What?”

Today’s instant access to bites of information enables us to jump to conclusions faster than ever before. We listen or read just enough to form a quick opinion, and then we either endorse or oppose what has been said. This puts us at risk of being influenced or manipulated, making faulty judgments, leaving key assumptions untested, and missing out on opportunities.

We all need to slow down and ask questions about what we are hearing. And the more extravagant the idea, the more questions should be asked. Asking “Wait, what?” gives us the opportunity to work on deeper understanding, which is critical to making informed judgments and decisions—whether at home or in the office.

“I wonder why …?”  or “I wonder if …?”

Children have a knack for questioning the world around them – nothing is taken for granted. When children wonder why the sky is blue, they prompt those around them to think, reason, and find new and simple ways to explain things. Similarly, leaders and employees should remain curious about their organization in order to potentially see things from a new perspective.

Not asking questions about the way things are done inevitably leads to things being done in the same way. And makes it impossible to explore doing things differently. “I wonder if…?” can begin the process of creating change.

“Couldn’t we at least…?”

Often, controversial issues lead to inaction. Asking “Couldn’t we at least?” is the question that can help you get unstuck. It can get you started, even if you are not entirely sure where you will go. Perhaps you might first find some common ground by asking: “Couldn’t we at least agree on some basic principles?” or “Couldn’t we at least begin, and re-evaluate at a later time?”

“How can I help?”

We often don’t stop to think about the best way to help. Instead, we swoop in and try to singlehandedly solve the problem. This rarely results in a truly effective solution.

Instead, rather than jumping to offer solutions, try asking, “How can I help?” This forces your colleague to think clearly about the problem to be solved, and whether and how you can actually help.

“What truly matters?”

This question might seem obvious, but we don’t ask it often enough. “What truly matters?” is not a question that you should wait to ask when you sitting alone on top of a mountain. It should be a regular topic of conversation. For example, it’s a useful way to simplify complicated situations, like sensitive personnel issues. It can also help you stay grounded when you have grand ambitions, like expanding your practice. And it can make even your weekly meetings more efficient and productive, by keeping people focused on the right priorities. Asking this often will not only make your work life smoother, but also help you find balance in the broader context of your life.

What questions do you think should be part of your everyday approach to life?

You can also learn more about leadership and other critical skills in a free online training event, “The All-Star Dental MBA.” Click here to learn more about the webinar and sign up for a time and date that works best for you.

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