A meeting – in person, by phone, video, web or some combination of all three – is about to conclude. The session leader asks: “Any questions?” Silence ensues. A minute or so passes, the leader says, “Thanks!” And everyone signs off to a racket of stacking papers atop planners and a chorus of electronic beeps singing through speakerphones.
How often have you witnessed that scene in your organization? Is the noisy exit drowning out productivity? Are we all rushing away from opportunity?
Collaboration in business, after all, is about progress. We meet to move forward. We discuss making decisions. And we query each other to reveal new insights and adjust plans.
Asking the Right Questions During and at the End of Meetings Improves Collaboration
So, why aren’t more of us asking more questions before we speed away to our next task?
Sure, there are only so many hours in a business day, especially in today’s environment when digital conferencing services and collaboration tools unify all modes of communication – voice, visual and virtual. Nowadays, every member of an enterprise can reach colleagues, customers and partners anywhere in the world at any time from any place.
But isn’t making optimal use of scarce minutes the very reason we should use more of them posing questions?
The issue isn’t just a matter of intangibles, though. If, as Forbes reported, the average executive spends 23 hours of their week in meetings, and according to a study cited in Harvard Business Review (HBR), one meeting of mid-level managers per week could cost an organization as much as $15 million per year, aren’t we risking wasting that substantial investment by withholding our questions?
Of course, not just any question will do, if our aim is productive collaboration.
“In order for your questions to generate engagement and action, they need to be genuine attempts to learn and search for new possibilities,” writes Jim Ludema and Amber Johnson in a column for Forbes. “Questions with pre-determined answers or questions designed to show up your colleagues will generate resistance and resentment.”
So, how should we phrase our questions, if our goal is a greater return on collaboration?
Economy of words is important in our age of increasing mobility, as more of us work more often from home offices, hotel rooms or quiet corners in coffee shops. For our professional success, we’ve become more and more dependent on virtual settings, where we rarely sit with colleagues in the same room, building or even city. Words take on greater weight when nonverbal cues, such as body language, are absent. A question’s phrasing in a virtual meeting should ask for specifics rather than be a rhetorical challenge.
Author and networking expert Scott Ginsberg developed a list of more than 60 questions designed to elicit productive responses. Each seeks to reveal more than information: Ginsberg’s questions probe for intent, provoke creativity, clarify thinking and pursue multiple avenues for taking a conversation to a deeper level.
And the phrasing of all his questions is remarkably simple. The reason is, he explains, before formulating a query he asks himself: What words should govern my question?
After reviewing Ginsberg’s list, here’s our spin on five questions we feel have particular collaborative power, especially at the end of a meeting:
1. How do we plan to ________?
Use this question to steer the conversation toward process, action and specific next steps. This allows participants to focus on what they can do to advance the goals of the group.
2. How does our discussion today relate to ________?
This question focuses participants on uncovering connections between projects. Not everyone on a particular meeting is privy to the projects everyone else might be working on. So, it's important that you encourage them to think about how the team can work together to solve more problems.
3. How else could we approach ________?
This allows you to pique creativity, open thinking to options, and suggest engagement by participants. You are trying to encourage creative thinking and problem solving as the meeting wraps up.
4. How will we recognize if/when ________?
This question will prompt participants to imagine the shape and timing of success. You are trying to get the team to realize what they are working toward and how they will know when they accomplish it.
5. How are we willing to change if/when ________?
This question allows the team to acknowledge the possibility of complications and requests solutions in advance. These complications may never actually happen. But, planning for them in advance will only make the team performance stronger.