Stanford's Bill Barnett has a terrific blog post about the two types of questions that people tend to ask. The "showing off" question aims to demonstrate how much we know about a subject. It might be a "gotcha" aiming to expose the weakness or mistake in a presenter's argument. The second type of question aims to learn, not to show off. This question comes from a willingness to be a bit vulnerable, to acknowledge ignorance or a lack of a complete understanding about a subject. This "learning" question aims not to demonstrate our existing knowledge to others, but instead to deepen our understanding about a particular topic. Barnett points out that we often fail to ask these "learning" questions because we don't want to look stupid. We are afraid to acknowledge in front of our peers, subordinates, or superiors that we do not understand a topic completely. Unfortunately, we limit ourselves when we hold back in such a fashion.
What type of questions do you ask as a leader? Moreover, what type of questions do you encourage your team members to ask? Here are a few clues that someone might be asking a "showing off" question rather than a learning one. First, do you hear a long preamble before the actual question (or is there actually no question in there at all!)? Second, does the person's agenda shine through when they ask the question? Third, what's the person's body language like? Are they in attack mode in their posture, as well as their words? Finally, is it a leading question? Are they clearly fishing for a particular answer?