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  • Writer's pictureBethany Huebner

The Secret to Gaining Your Audience's Trust

clinician educator

It was my night at the dinner table, and I had a plan. You see every night of the week, my parents assigned one family member as the designated person to start dinner table discussion. There were five of us which made the week easy to assign. There I sat in that blue plaid rolling kitchen table chair, a little taller than normal, primed for when my dad would say, “Okay, Bethany, what would you like to talk about tonight?” I was a little bit taller than normal because I was sitting on a stack of joke books. My goal, to make my family laugh. As the baby of the family, most of us aren’t unfamiliar with the shenanigans to gain attention, but I also just loved to see people laugh. The table had been set, the participants all primed for my moment (well, maybe not everyone…I mean I did have a teenage brother at the time). I had practiced my delivery and folded the corners of the pages where the best jokes were written, I was ready. Was my family ready?

This is part 3 of the 3-week series where I have been discussing ways to get students or colleagues to ask productive questions. The past two weeks I have covered two of my three reasons for why I believe the silence occurs when students are faced with the, “Are there any questions?” question: 1. Students/coworkers approach learning only as a passive participant and 2. Students/coworkers haven’t yet learned how to ask productive questions. This week I want to tackle what I believe to be the toughest barrier to creating an environment where questions flow freely: Students/coworkers worry about their social image.

As I shared in week 1, I’m not immune to protecting my reputation when it comes to a question scenario. I have on many occasions, not asked the question on my mind in fear of what the other person might think about me once they have heard my question. I think we have all been there, right? My identity has been wrapped into being smart and successful and as a leader and expert, I have to protect that identity by showing people I know things…asking questions demonstrates my ignorance and incompetence, right???


That last sentence couldn’t be further from the truth.

Francesca Gino states in Rebel Talent, “The way that we typically think about the effect of asking questions – especially when we are in leadership positions – is just plain wrong.”

In fact, she sought out to prove that statement with research. She conducted a study with a group of college students where they were placed in front of a computer, paired with a partner and given brain teasers to answer. Each student was told they were paired with another human, but in reality they were paired with a computer. The participants were told the purpose of the research was to see the effect of instant messaging on performance on brain teasers. To increase motivation of performance, each participant was also told they would be paid a bonus for each of the problems they solved correctly. Just prior to beginning the process of solving problems, the “partners” sent the participant an instant message saying, “Hey, good luck!” After the participant finished the problems they received one of these two responses from their partner: 1. “ I hope it went well.” Or 2. “I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?” The participants were then given a survey to evaluate how competent they thought their partner was. Gino found that the students whose partner asked a question were rated as highly competent as compared to the students whose partner did not. Asking a question actually INCREASES perceived competence instead of decreasing it. When we interact with people with questions, we deepen our relationship because it shows others vulnerability. It allows people to see your humanness and they can relate to that because they are the same.

Lowering the social barrier and stigma of asking questions is a tall task in a classroom and maybe even more in the boardroom. Often times as the leader of the room, you may not have control over the culture or how questions are perceived in that culture, but you can control what you can control. Here are three ways I believe we can influence the culture around us to be a question asking environment:

1. Vulnerability

Do you remember when your parents had all the answers and really could do no wrong? Do you know at the exact same time your parents felt like they didn’t have any of the right answers and all they did was wrong? Man…what a difference perspective makes. Often these are the perspectives of the leader and audience in a room. The outward show is full of confidence, but the inward talk is full of doubt.

The number one thing you can control in this situation is you and your thoughts. Your goal is to create curiosity in the room, to spur creativity. How can these goals be met? Through relationship and trust. The quickest way to earning your audience’s trust is not to be the smartest person in the room or to have all the answers. The quickest way to earning your audience’s trust is by being vulnerable by asking the first question. As the leader, your audience will follow your lead. If you are vulnerable and show that you don’t have all the answers by asking them questions, you gain their trust. You are also demonstrating that this is a safe environment to ask questions where people won’t be berated or judged negatively by asking questions. The vulnerability of the leader creates a domino effect of lowering the threshold of the audience to asking questions of their own.

This can come in many different forms in the classroom or boardroom. One example may be sharing a personal story on how you really weren’t the expert on this topic you are about to present so instead of just faking it, you went around asking other experts questions. Or you could say something like this, “I just recently began learning about topic X, who in here knows about topic X? How can I best utilize topic x in my daily life?” Then facilitate a discussion about the topic x and fill in your expertise along the way. Being vulnerable at the beginning creates a trust filled environment and demonstrates the expected type of behavior in the room…curiosity.

2. Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement to be exact. When we see as teachers or leaders the behavior we are after we need to positively reinforce it. To be a part of creating the culture we want in our classroom or board room means we need to demonstrate the behavior (vulnerability) and reinforce it when we see it (encouragement). When questions are asked, regardless if they are good or not early on, we need to reward the person asking in some way. As you continue to practice question asking and develop deeper discussions, the questions will get better. Also, when someone does get enough courage to ask a question, we for sure do not want to respond frustrated or annoyed as that will produce negative reinforcement and demonstrate to the rest of the room that this environment is not a safe place to ask questions. Conversely, regardless if the question is annoying, we need to respond in excitement and appreciation. Thank the student/coworker for their question and reinforce with praise. “That is a great question, thanks for asking it.” Especially if you are early in establishing your classroom culture, consistent and repetitive reinforcement of question asking early can be really helpful as it will bread an audience that will like to ask questions as time goes by. They will see it as a positive and have less of a fear barrier to overcome when asking questions.

3. Clear expectations

Each person comes into a situation or room with a different frame of reference that causes them to assume certain expectations, there may be 40 or more different unwritten expectations entering your room. If you are passionate about creating curiosity, then make asking questions a clear expectation. Tell your audience from the beginning that questions are great and what they demonstrate…curiosity. Encourage your audience that you will ask a lot of questions and you expect them to as well. Most audiences want to please the speaker and as humans we want to meet expectations. If we outline from the very beginning that we expect questions, then our audience will most likely respond with meeting that expectation.

I’ve fallen in love with curiosity. I’ve made a commitment to myself to be more curious and ask more questions. To be genuinely curious has so many positives and my hope is that I have convinced you as well. One of my goals as an educator is to get my students to fall in love with the learning process and to be willing to do it each and every day…for life. It isn’t enough for them to sit passively in their chairs and just listen to information being thrown their way. They need to marinate on it, think deeply about it, and ask questions. My hope is the past three weeks has illuminated something new for you to utilize at work or at school to promote question asking.

It was at that dinner table, in front of my family where I learned speaking confidence. I’m not sure if that was a goal of my parents or not, they may have just been looking for a way to create some calm in the chaos of three kids, but whatever their reasoning the side effects were tremendous. You see they did the fundamental things I have been talking about over the past few weeks. They modeled what they wanted to see, they asked us lots of questions, they gave us time to talk and experiment, they were vulnerable with their own conversation topics, they set out clear expectations, and they let us explore. I will never live down my stack of joke books in my family, but I think I could have worse legacy’s.

Which intervention has resonated with you the most and why?

If you have enjoyed reading, would you mind sharing a link on your favorite social media spot? I would greatly appreciate it. You can also be sure to get each week’s blog post by subscribing below or liking/follow me on Facebook and Twitter @drbhuebner.

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