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Navigating the Tightrope: The Paradox of Leading Questions in Talent Development Training

Updated: Oct 7, 2023

Balancing the Power of Inquiry with the Need for Authenticity and Trust

In the dynamic landscape of talent development training and coaching, the use of leading questions can be seen as a way to help the coachee navigate their thoughts and provide a structure for the conversations. However, beneath the surface, a paradox lurks - the potential for these carefully crafted queries to inadvertently stifle conversations and erode the foundation of trust. At ZEN Coaching, we delve into the delicate balance between the utility of leading questions and their potential to create discord.

The Allure of Leading Questions Leading questions are often intended to guide conversations in specific directions, offering a scaffold for exploration. Their strategic formulation, we believe, has the capacity to tease out deeper insights, encourage introspection, and facilitate breakthrough moments. As coaches, we are drawn to their potential to unlock hidden layers of thought and help individuals navigate the labyrinth of their aspirations. We often use them from the point of viewing of subtly offering help - we've been in this situation before and so we know what works and what doesn't. We want to steer them towards the solution we know will be good for them.

The Erosion of Authenticity However, the very nature of leading questions can create a subtle undercurrent of distrust. When participants sense that the conversation is being steered towards a predetermined outcome, the authenticity of the interaction may be compromised. The organic flow of dialogue can become ensnared in a web of preconceived notions, leaving participants feeling as though their autonomy is compromised. Once a coachee (or team member receiving feedback) feels that their coach or manager favours a particular outcome to the discussion, they are entitled to ask - "What's the point if my ideas or solutions aren't valid?" or "Why don't you just say what you're thinking?".

Imagine a scenario where an employee is participating in talent development training, engaged in a conversation with their manager. The manager poses a leading question: "Have you considered how your leadership style might be impacting your team's morale?" While well-intentioned, this question might inadvertently imply that the manager has already formed a judgement, potentially triggering defensiveness in the employee and hindering open, honest, exploratory dialogue.

The Peril of Manipulation Leading questions, when not handled with care, can inadvertently verge into the territory of manipulation and stifle solution generation too. The perception that the coach or manager is pushing an agenda can create a power imbalance and erode the participant's sense of agency. This perception is antithetical to the principles of trust, mutual respect, and partnership that underpin effective talent development training or coaching.

It may even be the case that the coachee agrees wholeheartedly with the suggestion and doesn't feel manipulated at all - but can we be sure that's because it's a good idea or because they want to appear cooperative to their boss? The temptation will always be to veer towards the boss's ideas, not their own, even if it happens subconsciously. This bias towards power cuts off the potential for other solutions and further discussion. Coaching (and many feedback) conversations are most fruitful when they are collaborative journeys, where participants feel empowered to explore their thoughts and feelings without a sense of external influence, whether that's intended or not.

Cultivating a Culture of Trust In talent development training, the foundation of trust is paramount. Instead of relying solely on leading questions, we encourage an environment where open-ended inquiries are balanced with active listening. Authentic conversations flourish when participants feel heard, validated, and respected.

If you can avoid the suggestion of a "right answer", you get two major benefits:

- Exploration of more possible solutions and a higher chance of a best-fit

- Higher employee engagement and trust, making the solution more likely to be implemented

Finding the Equilibrium The key lies in striking a delicate equilibrium between the advantages of leading the conversation (to create structure and relating your experience when asked for) and the imperative of trust. While leading questions can undoubtedly occasionally be valuable tools, they must be wielded with mindfulness and sensitivity. Managers must resist the temptation to impose their own agenda, and instead, focus on fostering an atmosphere of genuine curiosity and exploration.

As trainers, we see it often - when delegates are asked to try coaching, or explore any issue, they leap very quickly to offering a solution and forgo the benefits of exploring the reality of the situation in more depth or getting the other person's ideas. Then, when this is highlighted, they switch to asking questions, but the original intention to offer a solution bleeds into their question and voila, a leading question like "Do you think X is a good idea?" emerges. This approach, while well intended, shuts down further exploration and lowers true engagement.

Conclusion The paradox of leading questions in talent development training underscores the delicate dance between guidance and autonomy, insight and authenticity. By acknowledging their potential to stifle conversations and create distrust, managers can refine their approach, ensuring that every interaction is a harmonious blend of thoughtful inquiry and genuine partnership.

What might all this look like in practise?

Ask from the point of view of genuine inquiry and wait for their ideas first before you offer your own.

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