Leaders: Focus on Questions, Not Answers

May 15th, 2011 by LaRae Quy

Article first published on www.linked2leadership.com


As an FBI counterintelligence agent, I spent considerable time learning about the people I was investigating. The more I knew about them, the better for my investigation.

My success—or lack of it—depended heavily on the accuracy of the information and knowledge that I acquired.

We can all achieve better results if we understand how to communicate effectively with others.

I began by imagining myself as the other person and asking the following questions:

  • What does this person want?
  • What does this person fear?
  • Where do our interests overlap?

Be Attentive

As an investigator, I developed the skill of being aware of my interactions with others and to my circumstances. Awareness is an important skill for all of us to develop because it allows us to pay attention.

Experts in every field are required to acquire the skill of paying attention. A physician is trained to notice symptoms in the human body that signal illness so they can prescribe a treatment. FBI agents are trained to look for signs of criminal intent.

The most effective leaders notice the wants, fears, and interests of others so they can generate information that will be beneficial.

Attend To People’s Cares

Employees value managers who make time for one-on-one meetings, who take the time to ask questions and not dictate answers. The human touch ranks above other skills such technology and computer skills, even at companies like Google. Attending to people’s cares should be at the heart of the manager’s skill set.

Uncovering the wants, fears, and interests of people can be accomplished by asking the right questions. Too often managers and leaders feel it is their job to answer questions, not ask them.

Questions to Ask

I interviewed Igor, a Russian spy, who was arrested by local police for drunk driving. Igor was a mess—he wasn’t even a good spy. He expected to be deported back to Russia in disgrace and he had lots of questions about how the incident would be reported to his superiors. My FBI training, however, had taught me to consider all possibilities in every situation. So I focused on asking the right questions rather than just providing answers.

The purpose of good questions is to uncover hidden concerns.

Effective Questions

Here are some types of effective questions based on my FBI training:

Open-Ended. If you’re looking for insight or information, never ask a question that can be answered by a yes or no. Questions that begin with dowould, or could all invite a monosyllable answer. Instead, ask open-ended questions that begin with how, what, or why.

Specific. Focus on the area of concern by asking specific questions, not vague ones. Notice words that are freighted with feeling or energy because they have more meaning to the person who is talking. Once you hear one of those words, follow up with an open-ended question.

Paced. When we’re accustomed to having all the answers, we can get uncomfortable with periods of silence. Rapid-fire questions are exhausting—for everyone. Moments of reflection in any conversation can be productive.

Polite. Good manners matter. Showing respect for the other person is the single most important thing you can do for them.

Focused. Good questions are goal-oriented. Be clear about your goals before you begin because it will be easier to frame your question. Understand why you’re asking a question before you ask it.

Honest. Manipulation is akin to extortion—it may get you what you want, once, but it doesn’t build long-term relationships.

Igor was not expecting the FBI to be honest and polite. We treated him with respect and invited him to suggest ways we could soften the blow of the news to the Russian Embassy. These factors made such an impression on Igor that he voluntarily provided valuable personality assessments of other Intelligence officers.

Questions To Avoid

Here are some types of questions I avoided:

Vague. Asking vague and useless questions make you seem unskilled and/or unprepared. And why waste the time?

Judgmental. If you want honest answers, make certain you don’t come across as confrontational or judgmental. Let the other person feel that they’ve been heard.

By asking the right questions, managers can uncover the wants, fears, and interests of others and achieve better communication skills.

How can leaders train themselves to be better listeners?  What tips do you have for asking questions that invite heart-felt responses? What are some types of open-ended questions that have worked well for you?

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2 Responses to “Leaders: Focus on Questions, Not Answers”

  1. Nemopsy says:


    During all these years, did you not feel concerned with the pattern of the faces?
    Don’t you think it could have told you many things about the character of the persons you interviewed?

    Thanks to you for these information.

  2. Ross Hall says:

    That respect point is so important.

    OK, so my entry into this wasn’t through counter-intelligence, but one of the key principles of Knowledge Engineering (which I did study in depth) is that you respect the expert. They know more than you, they understand more than you. As a Knowledge Engineer my skill had to be to ask questions that probed to the heart of their domain knowledge in a way that was non-confrontational, respectful and didn’t seem like I was questioning everything they said and did.

    Even a simple “please” or “thank you” can go a long way to achieving this.

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