Questions: the silver bullet of engagement

When delivering workshops and presentations I often say that there is no silver bullet* when it comes to engagement and behaviour change. Sure, there are many powerful tools and techniques which can be applied as part of a campaign, but from my experience none of them are universally applicable across organisations and stages of sustainable development. Apart maybe from one: the power of asking great questions. This blog will cover why this is the only universal silver bullet, what makes for great questions and how to approach the process.

Why ask questions?
Questions are the essential tool in your engagement armoury because of the insight you gain and how it makes people feel.

It is clear that through them, you get to find out more about what is going on in your organisation and how to align your programme to what is important. The magic of great questions is also how it makes the questioned feel. They can inspire people to take action, expand their range of vision and empower them to take ownership by offering the opportunity to think about what they could do themselves.

Great questions are those which empower both parties involved: the questioned feel good because they feel somebody is genuinely interested in them and their views and feelings. It empowers the questioner because you get to see the world from somebody else’s perspective and can build empathy with them.

Additionally, the answers can stimulate your creativity: the responses might not directly give you what you need, but they should give you a new way of looking at things. Even if they don’t give you answers you’re looking for, or stimulate creativity, they can provide vital insight. For example, if you’ve been getting excellent responses, and then somebody completely misunderstands the point of the questions, that’s great! Why? Because it gives you an insight into their personality, and not everybody will respond well to your carefully crafted cues, and therefore may need different communication methods in your eventual campaign. Or alternatively you accept they may struggle to ‘get it’.

What makes a great question?
Rather than closed questions (e.g. “is sustainability important to our organisation?”) you should ask open questions (add “why” to the start of the last sentence).

As the questioner, you will encourage openness and honesty. Try tailoring your questions so that they celebrate answers that come from the head AND the heart (e.g. “why do you feel…” in addition to “what do you think…”). Whilst logic is important, people’s feelings are just as valuable; and from my experience if people emotionally feel great about something, even if it doesn’t entirely logically stack up, it has a good chance of success.

Whether you frame the question positively or negatively can make a big difference on how empowering it is. For example, “what went well and what could be done to improve?” versus “what went wrong?”.

How should you approach asking questions?
It is possible to ask great questions, but not get that much out of the process. The attitude with which you ask questions is therefore critical. As well as open questions, it is important that you approach the process with an open mind and humility. This helps because you will almost certainly get some answers which you weren’t expecting, or even didn’t want. These are the best answers you can receive as they give you a perspective that you wouldn’t have been able to see without their assistance, helping you tackle those sticky problems from multiple perspectives.

Related to this is having genuine curiosity and gratitude for the answers. If you were just asking the questions because you feel as though you should be seen to be interested, when in fact you’d already made your mind up what you were going to do, then you’d be missing the point a little. Genuine curiosity and gratitude means you celebrate all the points of view in your organisation.

Once you’ve asked your question, then active listening will enable you to build rapport with the questioned and ensure you are able to take in all the information. You’ll be mindfully present to the conversation, staying focused on what the person is saying, pulling yourself back to the person if you drift (which will happen!). You will also be demonstrating this through your open body language, giving visual and verbal indications you understand what the person has said and maintaining appropriate eye contact.

To conclude, great questions can help you immensely when you are building your engagement campaign, as not only can they give you the information you need to effectively align your programme to the needs of the organisation, but also directly empower the people being questioned. Importantly, it can be fun when you build good rapport with someone by asking them great questions. So go forth, be curious and enjoy!

Interested in finding out more? Then consider attending the next “Engage employees and change behaviours” run by the author of this blog, our Head of Engagement, Adam Woodhall.

*In folklore, a bullet cast from silver is often the only weapon that is effective against a werewolf, witch, or other monsters.

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