I have been taking online classes this year from MasterClass, beginning with writers. There are classes taught by actors, directors, historians and business leaders. I have made it through James Patterson, Malcolm Gladwell, David Baldacci, Doris Kerns Goodwin and Bob Iger. It is a great way to hear from some of the top practitioners of their craft in a very intimate and entertaining format. I highly recommend this streaming service. I am greatly looking forward to learning from this site over the rest of the year. Over this next week, I will write about lessons from these online classes which can inform your compliance program, the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) and the compliance profession. Today I want to continue with a concept set out by Doris Kearns Goodwin on her class on US Presidential leadership and history. The concept is almost as old as humans themselves, asking questions.

In her class, Goodwin detailed four great Presidents: Lincoln, Johnson, FDR and Teddy Roosevelt. She said what defined them as great leaders was “the ability to use talent, skills, and emotional intelligence to mobilize people to a common purpose.” While each of them had a number of other skills, the ability to ask questions, then listen and synthesize the information into a coherent framework (i.e. see the big picture) was critical. Today, I want to start with that seemingly most basic skill, asking questions.

One thing these great leaders had in common was the ability to ask follow-up questions. This  signals to your conversation partner that you are listening, caring about what they have to say and, indeed, you want to know more. People interacting with a partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard. An unexpected benefit of follow-up questions is that they don’t require much thought or preparation – rather, they seem to come in a natural give and take. Follow up questions can be a part of your natural conversation and can work to establish a more encompassing relationship with others.

Open ended questions, if used properly, can be extraordinarily powerful and even, as the authors note, can be sources of innovation – which can be answers that no one previously gave. Consider that their opposite, the closed-ended question, can introduce bias and manipulation into the conversation and perhaps even the relationship. While opened questions may not be appropriate in focused situations such as negotiations, for the compliance professional they can be very useful to build trust and draw out information.

Depending on what you are trying to accomplish the sequence of questions may inform want you ask. Interestingly, the authors found that the best approach in tense encounters is to ask tough questions first, rather than easy ones building up to the tough ones. Johnson was particularly adept at this skill, as it can make your partner more willing to be more forthcoming. It also has the reverse psychological impact as people are usually more willing to reveal sensitive information when questions are asked in a decreasing order of intrusiveness. When a question asker begins with a highly sensitive question – such as ““Have you ever had a fantasy of doing something terrible to someone?” – subsequent questions, such as “Have you ever called in sick to work when you were perfectly healthy?” feel, by comparison, less intrusive, and thus we tend to be more forthcoming.”

Moreover, the order you ask questions can influence the answers as research has demonstrated that answers can be correlated from the sequence of questions. For the compliance practitioner you will most probably be desirous of building a relationship so the less sensitive questions asked first may be the best approach to take.

The tone of your question is always important. Lincoln was the master of this technique and strategy. However, if you want an example much closer to your own experience, you only need to think about the tone of your parents’ questions when you had been busted and you were under their glaring light. Obviously, questions asked in a casual manner are much more likely to be responded to fully than a legalistic approach. They will be more likely to be disarmed and open up to you.

Conversational dynamics were used by Teddy Roosevelt quite effectively. For not only is the willingness to answer questions affected simply by the presence of others, but members of an assembly tend to follow other’s lead. This means you should consider the setting of where you may be asking questions. Sometimes group interviews are preferred but it may be that a one-on-one is preferable. As a compliance practitioner, you should have an understanding of these dynamics and how the group setting may influence the information you receive.

The bottom line is that by asking questions, we naturally improve our emotional intelligence, which in turn makes us better leaders. Goodwin has drawn from her vast work and study of literally a lifetime of research to draw these insights to demonstrate how the framing of questions and choosing to answer them can influence the outcome of conversations. The best thing is that they are available for you to use to become a better CCO or leader as well.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2020