Increase Emotional Intelligence Through Open-Ended Questions - Rolling Stone
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How Leaders Can Increase Emotional Intelligence Through Open-Ended Questions and Gratitude

Practicing gratitude is to practice curiosity.


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Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

One of the secret ingredients to practicing deep meaningful gratitude and excellent leadership is a good set of open-ended questions. But what does that mean, really?

Voltaire is often attributed to having said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” Sir Francis Bacon is purported to have said, “A good prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” At every gratitude experience my organization produces, we have the same signature gratitude question, “If you could give credit or thanks to one person in your life that you never thought to thank, who would that be?” We ask this in a small group setting, and here’s what it does.

When we ask that question, participants usually immediately go into guilt, shame or regret, often thinking about who they have never thought to thank in their lives. It allows people to take a pause. It’s like a micro intervention that makes them see the world from a different perspective, and it allows them to tell stories. Now, when participants tell these stories, they might be thanking their mother or a father or an ex-bad boss or someone who hurt them or someone who helped them, but what matters is that they’re telling it from the heart.

The trick here is to ask even deeper open-ended questions. Let’s say a participant tells a story about their mother. We might ask them, “What’s the worst thing that ever happened to your mother? What’s your mother’s legacy? What’s one way your mother invested in you? What was your favorite thing to do with your mother? When did you see your mother come alive the most?” We’ve found that when you ask these deep, open-ended questions, you become curious about the other person.

When you’re curious about another person, that other person feels like they’re being heard and that you genuinely want to know more about them. This holds true not only in your personal life, but your professional one too. Asking deep and thoughtful questions creates a greater sense of connection and greater trust. People want to be listened to. They want to be heard and validated.

Wisdom comes from inquisitiveness — and the willingness to accept that maybe you lack some knowledge or wisdom someone else possesses from their lived experiences. Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s just thinking about yourself less. So when you can go out into the world, not thinking about what you can do or say next, but instead thinking about what question you can ask next, you’ve created a posture of otherness. This curiosity lends itself to deeper connections with others — be it a friend or employee — because people naturally want to be around you.

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When you ask open-ended questions empowering others to share their story, you get to listen to their feelings and perspectives about the world. And when you get to learn through their stories and their observations, you become wiser, you become more worldly, and most importantly you realize that there are people with unique perspectives and different viewpoints. Asking these questions and putting yourself in their shoes is empathy. This develops your emotional intelligence and leads to peak performance.

Cultivating this practice of asking deep questions can help make you a better leader: for your staff, overall company and clients. In fact, research suggests that having emotional intelligence is what largely sets high performers apart from others who have similar skills and expertise. Practicing gratitude is to practice curiosity. It’s to practice the willingness to accept that you’re not the smartest person in the room and that you’ve received benefits and blessings from others. Asking deep open-ended questions helps you get that wisdom out of others.

One of the ways that you, as a leader, can practice deep open-ended questions is to first look inward. Write down three people in answer to our signature gratitude question, “If you could give credit or thanks to one person in your life that you never thought to thank, who would that be?”

Now under those three people’s names, write a paragraph about those people. What have you learned from them? What did they learn from you? How did they wrong you? How did they help you? How did they live their life?

After that, write down five to seven values that the person you just gave credit and thanks to stands or stood for. Write down those five to seven values for each of the three people and see if there are any commonalities. You might find love, loyalty or honesty, or a myriad of other qualities. Then, look at how those values show up in your life today. What stories do you tell around those values?

These guiding principles have great potential to impact not only how you move forward from that moment, but how you interact with and lead others. From this, you’ll see a whole sense of connection, and the world will seem to be a much smaller place, as you’ll realize we have a lot more in common than we have differences.


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