First Lady Barbara Bush provides a powerful example of how a law enforcement leader could use questions in the community. When President Bush, Sr. was running for office, Mrs. Bush had to choose an issue to promote. She picked literacy. The campaign announced it, but neglected to mention that she knew very little about the subject. At a campaign stop, Mrs. Bush's hostess said, "We're so excited about your visit. We've gathered some forty-five literacy experts. They can't wait to hear what you have to say."
After a brief introduction, Mrs. Bush asked the gathering, "If you were married to the President and you had the opportunity to really make a dent in illiteracy, what one thing would you do? How would you do it?" The First Lady knew from experience that people would rather hear themselves talk. She learned, when in doubt, keep quiet, listen, and let others talk. They'll be happy and you might learn something [Leeds, 2000].
Want to know what to say to a community group, school, business, service organization, or the media? Want what you say to begin building bridges, trust, and connections and solve problems. Ask them,
"If you were me, and you had the chance to really make a difference in crime/our drug problem/gangs/child abuse/graffiti/underage drinking, etc., what would you do? How would you do it?"
Other questions for then or later might include:
- How would you describe the current reality?
- What should our goals be?
- What are the pros and cons of that approach?
- Are there other options?
- Who would need to be involved?
- What would be their roles?
- What resources are available?
- Are there resources we haven't thought of?
- What can we expect to happen if we do that?
- What can we expect to happen if we do nothing?
Not Every Question is Created Equal
To empower yourself and others, you must ask the right questions in the right way. Otherwise, questions can be forcefully disempowering. Compare the effect of the following questions:
- Didn't you finish that assignment? vs. What problems did you have finishing that assignment?
- I've told you that before, haven't I? vs. What could I have done differently to help you understand the situation?
- Why don't people want to work anymore? vs. Why don't people want to work here?
- How do I lead if people don't want to follow? vs. Why don't people want to follow how I lead?
- Why didn't you tell me? vs. What could I have done to have you come to me earlier?
- Can I help you? vs. How can I help you?
- Why me? vs. What is the lesson here for me?
How you ask a question can be as important as what you ask. The most common problem with any question is the spirit in which it's asked. Pay attention to your tone. You'll get immediate feedback--the nonverbal reaction of the person you're asking--that will help you monitor yourself so you can ask questions in a positive, non-judgmental way. Your body language and tone of voice is what convinces people and gets them to open up. People can tell when you're really not interested. Show interest with eye contact and by leaning in towards. Keep your limbs open and relaxed. Keep your voice sincere.
If this is new leadership behavior on your part, people may be skeptical or puzzled. They may fear the consequences of an honest answer. Be patient. Wait and people will almost always answer
Asking questions and listening takes time. It's much more efficient to give orders. But that doesn't inspire or bring out the best in people. It doesn't empower them to achieve their highest potential. Don't ask questions unless you're willing to commit the time.
Be prepared for answers you don't want to hear. You must not get defensive, hostile or arrogant. Your job is to truly listen and thank the person for their view [Clarke-Epstein, 2002].