Ask At Least Two Questions

In this short article, Epic Leadership Development and Field Ministry team member Tom Virtue outlines a principle he’s learned over the years: “Always ask two questions.”  He explains why leaders are often afraid of new ideas, and what kind of spirit we need to adopt to respond differently. 

My wife has a lot of wisdom about a lot of things, but when it comes to thinking about and discerning the emotional intelligence of leaders there’s no one that I trust more. One of the things that I’ve heard her say dozens of times is that, “Leaders need to have at least wrestled with their basic security, identity, and belonging issues to be ready to lead effectively.” As with a lot of things, I agree with her more and more as time goes by and I see how what she says is consistent with reality.

One of the arenas where leaders can negatively influence is when they haven’t dealt with their “basic security, identity, and belonging issues.” It is when people they are responsible to supervise bring new ideas to them (or challenge an existing idea, or want to give feedback, or are troubled by something, etc.). Why? Because new ideas challenge existing ideas, and feedback challenges how something currently is being done. That can be very threatening as leader so that is when those “basic security, identity, and belonging issues” come to the surface. Sometimes leaders try to justify themselves, maintain stability so they don’t have to relate to change, or just don’t have the energy to consider something new. Whatever the reason, if they don’t listen, the end result is that everyone loses in the process – the organization, the discouraged initiator, and the leader’s credibility.

I’ve recently been thinking about how many good ideas don’t get the proper attention (i.e. listened to, considered, etc.). I’m feeling it because I’ve been on the receiving end where my ideas weren’t fully considered, but that got me thinking back to several times when I was on the other side of the equation and I didn’t do the listening that would have been helpful, appropriate, and a demonstration of servant leadership.

On the Epic Leadership Development team we’ve been reading “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” by Gordon MacKenzie. He describes how this dynamic takes place in a whole company as he shares about his experience at Hallmark. Does this sound familiar to you at all? “Unfortunately, while the heart of Hallmark sings the virtues of creativity, the company’s intellect worships the predictability of the status quo and is, thus, adverse to new ideas. This incongruity creates a common corporate personality disorder: The organization officially lauds the generation of new ideas while covertly subverting the implementation of the same ideas. The consequence is that, on any given day, umpteen people at Hallmark, responding to official corporate invitation, come up with concepts for new methodologies or fresh, original products. Then those ideas, by nature of their newness, are deemed fundamentally unseemly by the same authority conglomerate that asked for them in the first place. This makes for a lot of frustrated ideamongers.”

To me this isn’t just an exercise in theory. I happen to be in a place where I relate to a variety of people who bring me ideas, feedback, and input. I don’t want to perpetuate what I’m afraid I’ve done in the past at times and what I see holds us back at times. As a result I’m implementing a guiding principle for myself and it will be something that I will try to encourage other leaders I coach to adopt.

When an idea, feedback, or input is brought to me I’m committed to asking at least 2 questions to gain some understanding. Why 2 questions? I’ve realized as I’ve had ideas critiqued or turned down without any questions that it was clear to me that the people responding didn’t really even understand what I was aiming for. I don’t want people to walk away thinking that I’ve written something off without even really understanding it. I won’t commit myself to say yes to every idea, or agree with every item of feedback, but I’m committing to asking at least 2 questions to try and understand more thoroughly! If you’re working with me – hold me to it!

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Discussion Questions:

  • Think of an idea or thought from your past, that excited you enough to share it with your friend, leader, or team.  Did you feel they took the time to listen and ask questions, before moving to judgment?
  • Name an idea, thought, or piece of feedback you’ve heard from somebody else in the past month.  How did you respond to it?