If You Want to Look Smart, Ask These Questions
Everyone likes to look smart. After all, the alternative isn’t very desirable. But looking intelligent isn’t as straightforward as it seems. In order to show our competence, we rattle off our accomplishments, point to our experience, and speak with assembled confidence. While this might work in some situations, it can actually have a negative effect. When we’re self-focused, we lose an opportunity to build trust and can repel the people we want to like us. Further, research shows that many of the affects we use to appear smarter, such as serious expressions and big words, actually backfire.
It’s ironic that we spend so much time worrying about projecting competence that we ignore the chance to actually grow smarter. We put our energy into finding the right thing to say, instead of creating learning conversations. If we want to show up as intelligent and competent, we should master how to hold conversations that increase wisdom for everyone.
Leadership coaches know deeply the power of asking questions. When you learn how to get truly curious and see the response to great questions, you realize the implications this has in every aspect of our lives. We are our most helpful, competent, and inspiring when we ask powerful questions and let go of the need to make pithy statements. And studies show we’re also more likable.
By asking great questions we’re providing an invaluable service to others – giving them the mental space to process their own thoughts. Think about how you talk to your best friend when you have a problem. She doesn’t have to tell you anything. She can simply ask empathic questions and allow you to talk through your issue. You leave feeling 10 pounds lighter because you reflected on the issue and know what to do.
Adding powerful questions to your own communication repertoire is a small change with major benefits. Consider these situations where we can enhance the way we relate to others by asking better questions:
- Advising a team member on his or her performance
- Facilitating a meeting discussion
- Helping someone change
- Dealing with a difficult issue with a colleague
- Positioning for a promotion
- Interviewing or being interviewed for a job
I could go on. In fact, in most instances where we go in trying to say something just right to show our competence, we can only make a stronger case by asking more and better questions. And ironically, we actually look smarter by losing the need to prove how smart we are, and focusing on learning with the other person.
Powerful questions make people stop and think. They create space in others. They get to the core of an issue and cause our perspective to expand. They’re based on curiosity, and tend to start with “What” and “How” versus “Why,” which can put people on the defensive. They aren’t loaded or leading, but arise from the situation and the dialogue. They show empathy and interest, and make conversations deeper and richer.
If you want to experiment with using more questions in your own life, I suggest making a list of great questions that you hear. As you gain comfort incorporating questions, they will flow naturally. However, in the beginning it can help to have a list of go-to questions to get you started. Below I’ve listed some of my favorite questions that elicit reflection and thoughtful responses:
- What matters most?
- What’s possible?
- What’s meaningful about this for you?
- What would you do if you were me?
- If undecided, what would (joy, passion, confidence, etc.) do?
- What are you willing to commit to making it happen?
- What do you have the most energy around?
- If anything was possible, what would you do?
- How will you know you’ve been successful?
- Rate this issue 1-10. How could you move it by 1 point? 2 points?
For many of us, using questions over statements is a radical departure from everything we’ve learned about proving ourselves – an especially tricky exercise in situations known for being proving grounds like interviews and meetings. Try to start with an interaction that feels less fraught, such as an informal chat with a colleague. See how the conversation differs if you mostly ask great questions. And start paying attention around you. You may notice people already using questions in powerful ways that you didn’t realize. They’re often the one viewed as the smartest person in the room.
This post also appears on Forbes.com.
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