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The power of who, what, where, why, when and how

When I was a magazine editor, I devoured research on people’s reading habits. I wanted to know what it was that attracted people to read stories, from how best to lay out the page to what words to use in headlines. This is where I came to this view that the most powerful words of all are who, what, where, why, when and how.

These six interrogative pronouns are powerful because they almost always mean the start of a question, and questioning is the very basis of great leadership. Simply ask people questions that help them to understand situations, or help them to get to the right answers themselves, or show you really care and are interested in what’s going on, and you’re halfway to being inspiring without doing anything else.

Perhaps it’s because these words were drilled into me when I started my life as a journalist, but they have served me incredibly well.

Most problems at work have to do with miscommunication. We make assumptions instead of asking questions, and then we wonder why so many things go wrong. Asking questions is fundamental to building trust and relationships. For a leader, questions help you better to understand the people you’re working with, what motivates them and what gets in the way of better performance, and they enable better-informed decision making.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to listen to and appreciate your staff. When you ask good questions, you show people around you that you really value what they think. I strongly believe that in a more open, collaborative and transparent world, in which top-down leadership models are rapidly disappearing, asking good questions is a more important skill than ever.

The more we use these six power words, the more likely we are to be good listeners. The more questions we ask, the better we will understand situations and the less likely we will be to want to talk about ourselves all the time. I don’t believe that I have ever seen ‘the art of asking questions’ on the list of necessary skills of leadership, but I believe it should be. This is such a fundamental part of leadership.

Whether you are coaching an employee, seeking to find out how people feel, trying to understand a complex situation or even just networking at an event, I believe that these words, should you practise them enough, will become a secret weapon that can make you far more inspiring.

As Rudyard Kipling wrote:

I keep six honest serving-men

– (They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

– And How and Where and Who.

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