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The More Important Question: The One Behind the Question

You’re familiar with the common scenario where someone half-jokingly asks for advise for a “friend”. Everyone knows the “friend” is actually the person asking the question.

Well, that scenario happens in leadership also. All the time.

I call it:

The question behind the question.

The question behind the question may be the more important question. 

Sometimes it’s just a simple question and nothing is hidden in it. But, sometimes, whether because of fear, insecurity or intimidation, people are hesitant to share what’s really on their mind. They ask questions or make statements which are really innuendos of a bigger issue.

Let me give you a simple example. Someone on your team asks, “Are we going to evaluate the Easter services?” That’s a fair question. And, you could simply say “yes” or a “no” and the question is answered. But, there’s likely a bigger question behind that question – or some statement, some input or feedback, maybe even a critique, which prompted the person to ask the original question. And, that’s what you really want or need to know. 

It’s may or may not be the fault of the leader which causes the “real” question not to be asked, but good leaders look beyond what’s being verbalized. They attempt to discern the motive and intent of the question or statement someone makes. They ask follow up questions to make sure they understand the concern or input being given.

When someone is asking the leader a question (or makes a statement to the leader), the leader needs to consider if the question is the real question or if a disguised bigger question exists. They need to ultimately get to the unspoken questions and statements.

In fact, the health of the organization may depend on uncovering what’s really not being communicated.

Next time someone asks you a question – or makes a statement – consider whether there is a question beyond the question.

It could make all the difference.

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • @Bryankr says:

    Where were you and Twitter 10 years ago!? I got sandbagged about then with just such a statement. Had to learn the hard way to listen, very carefully with my heart (I.e. prayer) so as not to fall into something much deeper than what it seemed on outward appearance. Didn't help any that I have a bad tendency to strike first when I feel threatened. This turned out for better in that it was the beginning of some wonderful lessons about the Master I follow and the servant following! I still have work to do, but we accomplished much through 1 tough lesson to start it all.

  • Yup! This happens due to the fear of retaliation. Shrewd leaders go beyond the obvious and search out the real meaning and they respond meaningfully.

    In our audit parlance, we call this root cause analysis. We need to address the root cause in our corrective action whenever we try to address a problem.

  • Great post, Ron! Coaching trains us to do just that – listen for what is being said and not said, and dig deeper to the question. More leaders should be trained in coaching principles. Love it!