Questions Can Help Others "Learn How to Learn"

Wednesday evening, at President Obama’s press conference, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, asked the President (I’m paraphrasing a bit); “What, during your first 100 days in office most surprised, troubled, enchanted, and humbled you?”

The President had to stop and write down the question (the question was lengthy. Writing it down also provided him time to think about his answers). You can see a very short video of this here.

It took a lot of courage for Zeleny to ask this question, and a lot of thought for the President to answer it. It was pretty close to the kind of question that leaders who are responsible to develop other people should learn to ask. These are the kinds of questions that help others learn how to learn. What made it so:

  • It was open ended: Beginning a question with “what” is a great strategy for asking a question that is thoughtful and open-ended, inviting the respondent to really think about an answer.
  • The person asking didn’t know the answer to the question: it wasn’t a “leading” question or a question that Zeleny knew the answer to. I’m guessing that the President hadn’t seen the question before the press conference either since there appeared to be a fleeting moment of surprise (and humor) cross his face – thus the question had the effect of helping the President to really think about some things that mattered to him.

  • It was personal: the question was one that meant something to the President personally. Due to the personal nature of the question, he seemed quite engaged in providing the answer; this had the consequence of giving all of us a glimpse of the President as an individual.

Leaders must learn to ask these kinds of questions. Many journalists are very good at it (just listen to the kinds of questions Barbara Walters and Diane Rehm ask), and we can learn from them.

You know how to tell people what to do. But do you have the courage to ask the kind of questions that will help your people learn how to learn?

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

2 comments on “Questions Can Help Others "Learn How to Learn"

  1. Another thought-provoking post, Mary Jo. In order to ask great questions,we have to be prepared and focused on others. It is not easy to do, but you have reminded me that the best answers come from the best questions.

  2. Yes, Becky, it is hard to do. It is seemingly so much more efficient to just keep moving, taking action. Leaders have to slow down to ask the questions that prompt the best answers.

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