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Ten Engaging Conversations: Asking Provocative Questions to Provoke New Ideas

November 9, 2009

Updated February 13, 2013

Tai Chi Today, I have a special guest whose topic is of significant importance and interest to how we function as leaders at work or in the community.

Debbie Payne is Senior Principal Associate and President of DP Leadership Associates, and founder and partner of Deberna International. In her guest post, Debbie presents eleven provocative questions to spark conversation and inquiry.

Debbie is the author of over 25 curriculum publications and two books, including Tri-namics Power of One, Two, Three: Provocative Questions for Leadership Wisdom (co-authored with Erna Hagge, founder of Coaching Services at the University of British Columbia). Meet Debbie at LinkedIn.

As a leader of yourself, your family, your community or within your organization you have a responsibility to yourself and others. You have a responsibility and accountability to use your best thinking, to be ethical, and to lead wisely.

What conversation is your organization having today? Odd question? Perhaps, but perhaps not, how well do we listen to the conversations in our organizations today? Do we think it important to know? Are the conversations respectful, intellectual, valuable, deeply thoughtful, filled with new creative ideas, authentic, and coach-like? Or are they directive, guarded, calculated, venting, and non-engaging? What stimulates a conversation? Generally it is a question.

What helps us be the best leader we can be? Asking provocative questions to provoke new ideas, different thinking, or more curiosity helps those around us see us as leaders. Great questions take time to answer. To create them we need to really listen carefully and to craft a question that does not elicit an obvious answer.

According to Jill Konrath, renowned author and speaker, provocative questions “force you to look beyond the obvious, to analyze, assess and make decisions” and “ demonstrate your expertise and enhance your credibility, can’t possibly be answered without seriously considering their business situation.”

Terry J. Fadem in his book The Art of Asking, Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers he says, provocative questions are “used to expand the thinking of a group… to provoke or stimulate creative thinking. “

To encourage more engaging conversations in your organization have a look at some of these ideas and share them with your colleagues and your teams. Perhaps we can collectively shift the culture and engage more people, simply by improving our approach to conversation. Notice the provocative bonus question. As we become courageous in asking provocative questions, and in expecting them, we will find that our own leadership wisdom increases.

1. Explore a new topic. Search for a new mutual topic of interest to explore with someone you have had other conversations with. Get agreement to explore it intensely. Do it together and notice the engagement between you sparkle.

2. Ask someone to teach you. Notice someone who knows something you would like to learn. Ask them to show you how or teach you. Be attentive, curious, and encouraging as they share with you some new knowledge.

3. Listen deeply. Engage another in conversation by giving 100% focused, present, and deep listening. When someone feels heard their value, worth and engagement rises.

4. Allow silence. When the person you are speaking with pauses, allow the silence to hang suspended and continue to hold a focus with them. They will take a breath, realize you are truly engaged and continue sharing their thoughts.

5. Coach. If someone expresses a need to work towards a goal ask if you can coach them. Use gentle, powerful, and thoughtful questions to engage them in conversation, listen well, and suspend your own judgement helping them to find their own answers.

6. Share a poem. To illustrate, or spark conversation in a new way, share a poem. Read it aloud and encourage communication to stem from the poem stimulating different thoughts and engaging different parts of the brain.

7. Explore what works. When faced with an issue or problem instead of problem-solving ask questions about what does work. Delve and dig deep to find the gems of good ideas, good processes, and excellent work. It engages people in new ways.

8. Notice someone’s passion. When you know someone has a passion find an article, an object, an idea, or piece of information and share it with them. Engage them in conversation on their passion and sense the energy and vitality.

9. Converse with youth. Youth provide a window to the world without baggage. Learning with youth brings an engaging energy to old topics. Find ways to connect to the youth of the world and ask them to engage you in their conversations about the world.

10. Define leadership. Leadership as a word has no recognized definition. Create a definition with other leaders, explore what leadership looks like, find examples of leadership, and engage in leaderful conversations.

11. Bonus: Ponder a quote. Quotes are words spoken and remembered. They often inspire and make us think. Create a question from the quote and engage in conversation with others about the meaning and application to your work. You may find it surprising to see the shift in your thinking and the level of your engagement.

“Most things still remain undone…a glorious future.” (Ingvar Kamprad)

Coaching Question: What is it that is undone that I would like to do?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2009 9:51 pm

    Thanks Dick. Made the correction.

    And thanks Susan. Debbie’s post is very helpful.

  2. Dick Rennie permalink
    November 9, 2009 9:36 pm

    Refer to para 4 above,the last sentence uses the word illicit rather than elicit, otherwise most interessting

  3. November 9, 2009 9:28 pm

    Those are wonderful ideas! I especially liked #2 and #3. Just imagine how meaningful it would be for a leader to engage in these actions with someone on his or her team. It would probably change the whole dynamic of the relationship in a very positive way.


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