Leaders: Focus On Questions, Not Answers


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 do, would, 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?

LaRae Quy is former FBI Agent and Founder at Your Best Adventure
She helps clients explore the unknown and discover the hidden truth in self & others

Image Sources: motivation-space.com

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L2L Contributing Author


  1. Rebecca Lacy on May 9, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    I love this! This is a topic that we spend a great deal of time on with those whom we coach. Inevitably, people feel that they need to have the answers…that’s the easy part. Asking the right questions at the right time is imperative to effective leadership.

    • LaRae Quy on May 10, 2011 at 8:10 pm

      Hi Rebecca,

      So many times leaders and managers feel that it’s their job to provide all the answers. If you have a chance to click onto the Google link, it’s a great story that might help illustrate this point with those you coach. I use this example in the talks I give and it strikes a cord.

      Thanks for your feedback!

      LaRae Quy 415.609.0608 [email protected]

      Visit the website at http://www.LaRaeQuy.com/blog/

  2. Sally Pina on June 1, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    I recently heard a speaker assert that all successful leaders have an “in spite of” list (Marshall Goldsmith). After some introspection, I was surprised to realize I am successful “in spite of” the fact that I talk too much – I give too many answers and ask too few questions. I committed to my team to change this behavior – so I found your article at an ideal time. Thanks for the insight. To help other leaders accept the challenge to become better listeners, I have a few questions:
    Is it possible that your team is comprised of people who know their jobs and your environment better than you? If you take the time to draw solutions from them now, will that save time in the future because they will be more confident problem solvers? Do you believe good ideas come from people at every level of your team? Do they know you value their input?
    And, yes, I initially typed this reply in the form of statements about what “I have done”, rather than questions. Old habits die hard.

    • LaRae Quy on June 2, 2011 at 11:07 pm

      Hi Sally,

      I’m so happy that this article was useful for you. Here are my thoughts on your questions:

      > Do you believe good ideas come from people at every level of your team?

      If they don’t, they shouldn’t be on your team.

      > Do they know you value their input?

      They will never know you truly value their input unless you listen to them. Leaders and managers are often hesitant to do this because it takes time to sit down and listen to what an employee has to say. The key is to structure the team member’s input so they are answering questions that are important to you and your team’s goals. The questions need to be specific – as do the answers.

      > Is it possible that your team is comprised of people who know their jobs and your environment better than you?

      This is where ego gets in the way of effective listening. I really do think it is the leader’s ego that prevents them from being good listeners. They’ve been “trained” that a strong leader should have all the answers and lead with conviction and authority. A good leader will recruit people better and more knowledgable than him/her because they truly want to create the best team.

      > If you take the time to draw solutions from them now, will that save time in the future because they will be more confident problem solvers?

      The hallmark of a strong leader is that they train others to be strong. This means operating from the point of strength and not weakness. Exploit your strengths as a leader and manage your weaknesses. This means being aware of both – people often try to pretend they don’t have weaknesses OR they focus too much time on their weaknesses when they should simply acknowledge them so they can manage them and then focus on developing the strengths that make them unique.

      I hope this helps!

      Keep reading my blog and keep up the comments – I appreciate them.

      LaRae Quy 415.609.0608 [email protected]

      Visit the website at http://www.LaRaeQuy.com/blog/