School Leaders get what they ask for

Posted by: Joyce Matthews   |   No Comments   |  Posted on: Jun 16, 2014

fairground rideQuestions are a great tool in any school leaders’ toolbox, aren’t they? Using questions in a conversation or meeting can show you are interested in hearing someone’s opinion, or keen to hear their solutions and ideas, or you just want to find out more about them and their lives and interests.  They can show someone explicitly that you value them and want to listen to them talking.

But have you ever thought about ‘how’ you use questions? Have you ever thought about how some questions get better responses than others? Have you ever wondered about how some questions don’t always get you the answers you thought they would, or get an antagonistic response or even no response at all?

Have you ever taken the time to think about how some questions might make someone feel?

I’m sure you have, because as a teacher, you know all about open and closed questions and their value, so there’s no need to discuss the virtues of each one. But have you ever thought about the direction of questioning? Have you ever thought about how a line of questioning can lead you on a journey? A long and winding path towards the sunshine, or a short abrupt spin on a fairground ride? Have you ever thought about how questioning can build a sense of rapport and comfort towards a brighter future or a sense of unease and threat towards a sticky end? Which one would you want to create as a leader? How do you want to use questioning to make your staff feel?

Let’s go back to good old Abe Maslow again; if we want people to feel safe and secure, the type of questions we could use are closed questions, with factual answers – the type that won’t cause us too much stress to answer. Think about the kind of questions you get asked as you arrive at a training event – ‘Have you come far today? How did you get here? Did it take you long? What’s the weather like outside? Is it still raining?’ All fairly ‘safe’ questions, which have factual answers that you know; you don’t need to give an opinion or form a hypothesis or share your deepest thoughts and fears.

These closed and factual questions build ‘rapport’; they help to make you feel safe because they show a bit of interest, but don’t push you out of your comfort zone. But as a leader, surely you want to extend comfort zones? Your business is all about developing other leaders, so surely your job is to extend thinking as well?

Well, whether you are a teacher in a class, or a leader of a high performing school, you need to build rapport, make someone feel safe, before they will accompany you on any type of learning journey. So firstly ‘catch’ up with them and built rapport with lots of safe questions, then you can ‘match’. Harmonize with them by spending a bit of time using their words, asking questions they provide you with the ammunition for – questions that show ‘the love’ (not literally of course, not in school anyway). These types of questions may take their thinking laterally, keep them on fairly comfortable ground – “What’s that like then? Have you ever done anything like that before? What does that look like? Can you give me another example of that?” How will these questions make your staff feel? Will they start to take them higher in Maslow’s hierarchy?

So what’s next? Once you’ve started to make others feel that they ‘belong’ , that they’re valued and listened to, you might want to move even further up the pyramid? Is it time to ‘dispatch’ the old and the safe, and move into that 3rd field of knowledge? Time to take them into a whole new area of thinking? Time to help them construct something new; a new idea, a creative solution to a problem, an innovative design? What type of questions would a really good leader ask now? That’s right, we’re ready for you to ask the open questions that allow us to share our thinking with you, that allow us to be creative, spontaneous, imaginative, decisive, to plan and invent and compose and design; to allow us to do all the types of thinking that will allow us to feel  enthused, motivated and even self-fulfilled. The type of thinking and feeling  that means we’re at the top of old Abe’s hierarchy; the type of feeling that gets us jumping out of bed in the morning and looking forward to coming to school.

So when you’re asking your teachers to come up with some innovative solution to increase school attendance, or to promote your school in the community or to solve disruption in the corridors, you might want to think about ‘how’ you ask the questions, ‘how’ you use questioning techniques to show your staff you care about them, ‘how’ you choose your questions to make them feel at least safe if not inspired?  Whether in a private one to one, or in the corridor or even in staff meetings, do you jump straight to the top of the pyramid in a scary leap or do you steadily ‘catch, match and then dispatch’ towards a win-win feel good solution?

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