The Power of the Question

It may not seem obvious, at least to some, that questions play an important role in all aspects of your daily work. Questions make us think. They lead to further questions, answers and discoveries. They help us learn about ourselves and others. Questions can also be negative, in and of themselves: How could you make such a mistake? And questions can be very (rhetorically) punishing: What are you, some kind of idiot?

However, I want to talk specifically about the power of a question as a reinforcer for positive performance. In my book “Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement,” I mention a question in the context of a manager taking a “celebration walk” through his plant and talking to people who are doing or have done something right that helped the organization. I wrote, “A question that is practically always positively reinforcing is, ‘How did you do that?’ Let the employees teach you something about what they do.”

I stand by that advice when the question is asked about a positive accomplishment, but it’s a question not limited to the workplace. Almost any person who has achieved something would like to be asked, “How did you do that?” And if you ask the question, make sure you really want to know and attend to the answer. Don’t settle for a shrug of the shoulders or an “It was no big deal” answer, because most people don’t really need much persuasion to talk about something they’re proud of. Just answer that response with, “No, I really want to know. How did you do that?”

Most people (even if they require a bit of persuasion) enjoy telling you how they repaired something, solved a problem or met a goal. For your part, all you have to do is listen. You might learn something. The good thing is that the person doing the telling not only feels recognized and valued, but he or she can also relive the experience then and later by telling others that you asked and what his or her answer was. A person who has been asked “How did you do that?” can learn something new in the telling as well. Imagine if you asked your son or daughter how they made an A+ on a test. If they think about it, they would have to answer, “Well, I read the material. I took notes. I did some research. I studied several times before the exam.” Wow, they now know the behaviors that earned the A+ grade, and by rehearsing those behaviors aloud might be more likely to repeat them!

Just think of the many missed opportunities to recognize and reinforce behaviors that have resulted in good, even great things at work and at home. When you look around and observe, and if you want more effort and enthusiasms from others, all you have to do is ask.