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May 11, 2019

The art of asking questions revised: The art of taking space

Great questions trigger great insights. That’s what leadership courses teach us and what coaches practice. What these techniques often ignore is the impact on the person who is supposed to answer. Coaching questions quickly feel intimidating, especially when they are not put into context.

“The instinct is to look for answers, but the truth is that questions teach us most.”

Ryan Holiday

When we get into questioning- (or: coaching-) mode, we don’t take space to put the question into context. And, we don’t share our story. With a sequence of ‘why’ or ‘so-what’ questions, we put all responsibility on the person in the hot seat. But, if we put questions into a context, if we dare to take space by sharing our point of view, we allow the other person to find inspiration. They may explore new directions and come up with different answers. And, we create opportunities for real conversations instead of coaching sessions.
The dark side of ‘why’ questions

“As it turns out, ‘why’ 
is a surprisingly ineffective 
self-awareness question.”

Tasha Eurich

A widely used technique for exploring root causes of problems is the ‘five why’ exercise or the sequence of ‘so what – now what’ questions. While ‘why’-questions have the benefit to target the core issue by revealing the essence, they don’t allow for deviations. It is through deviations though that we explore new paths and find new perspectives.
When we rephrase ‘why’ questions into ‘how come’ or ‘what if’ questions, we invite our partner to an explorative journey and take the pressure off their answer. For example, when I ask: “Why are you here?” the answer I receive will most likely be short and precise: “I am here to participate in the workshop”. Instead, I can ask: “What made you come here?” The small twist will reveal unexpected insights about our conversation partner and open new paths we can further explore with follow-up questions.

Learnings from improv

A few months ago, I started taking lessons in improvisation theatre.[1] My main driver was the wish to feel more comfortable with uncertainty. As it turned out, improv theatre changed my perception on how to ask questions. Our teacher forbids us to ask but encourages us to share (information or stories). Whenever I ask a question on stage, my teacher instructed me to answer it myself. Instead of asking “What happened to your face?” I would say “You promised me to stay away from my make-up box, Mary!”
In improv, we share the responsibility of creating a fun scene on stage by providing information. We “endow” our partner, ourselves or the scene with insights that the other can build on and play with.[2] Although I don’t suggest to take this advice literally for off-stage conversations, I do find inspiration in the way that it lowers the burden. Obviously, I don’t want to answer questions instead of asking them, but I want to add context to my question and signal drivers of my curiosity.
Off-stage, we assume that we show appreciation and care for others by asking questions. We learn that by questioning we show that it is not about us but about ‘them’. From improv’ I learned that I can trigger more meaningful answers by endowing my partner or even myself: I can either open up and share information about myself or share my point of view about who they are. When I take space and add information, I relief my partner from the full responsibility to find a reasonable answer.

The art of taking space

Improv taught me that by asking questions without sharing my own point of view, I leave my partner in the dark. Uncertainty and fear of judgement may arise or just a blank because he or she has never thought about that question and simply doesn’t know how to answer. Instead, I can put the subject into a context and share a story behind it, my own experiences or point of view. Thereby, I provide my partner with the material they can build on.
For example, I could ask: Why did you quit your job? But, I could also refer to an article I read or a related anecdote I have in mind while asking the question. I would then say: “I recently read an article about career shifting and learned about the benefits of a second career. This makes me curious: Why did you quit your job?” Instantly, the question turns away from the “why” and put emphasis on the “you”.
This is also when ‘taking space’ becomes an art: You don’t want to make the conversation about you or the article. By taking space, you want to offer your partner a structure and signal that you really care for them and their own answer.
From my experience as a podcaster who interviews experts about their facilitation techniques, I learned that this form of asking questions by taking space not only works on stage but also applies to real life conversations. [3]

Taking space as an interviewer

I have experimented with the concept of taking space in conversations since I have started podcasting. I learned that my guests tend to share more personal stories when I take some turns and share insights myself. Me opening up and showing that there is a context to my question helps them feel at ease. Sometimes, I don’t even ask a question but share an experience or an idea my guest made me think of. These anecdotes trigger my interview partner to go deeper and reveal more insights on the given topic.
Taking space did not come naturally to me. In the beginning, I couldn’t help but judge myself for taking too much space. For my first edits, I cut out most of my speaking time because I thought that the listener shall not be disturbed by my ‘noise’. Then, I realised that I could not delete my parts because the answers referred back to what I had said. As it turned out, my contribution was not only noise but a conversation trigger, I provided food for thought.
Now, I believe that a good conversation partner (and interviewer) has the responsibility to take space – in a way that lifts up the other. As an interviewer or conversation partner, our contribution only turns into disturbance if we fail to listen. If we listen to reply, we cannot lift the other. Only if we listen to understand we will think of interesting questions or contributions that will add to the story, to the scene.

Take away for facilitators

As facilitators and coaches, we walk a thin line between setting the stage for our groups to collaborate. We must guide them and let go. As a matter of fact, though, we are part of the group as soon as we enter the space. We share the responsibility and cannot expect them to share if we don’t. It is our job to endow the group and space so that the group can build on the input, play with it or replace it.
The concept of “taking space” often has a negative vibe to it as we are not supposed to be the centre of attention. And, we shall not. Therefore, I claim that ‘taking space’ is an art that every coach and facilitator shall master.

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[1] Improvisation theatre (or: improv theatre), is a form of theatre in which none of the presented scenes is previously rehearsed. In contrast to classical theatre, actors improvise everything on the spot.

[2] Definition of ‘endowing’ in improv theatre: “An offer that specifically assigns characteristics or attributes to another performer’s character.”

[3] You can listen to the show on your favourite podcast player, searching for “workshops work” or stream the episodes on