In the Silence: 3 Powerful Questions to Ask Before You Speak



Trusted to serve
by Tamara Paton in Interpersonal, Work of the board

We all have that colleague. You know, the one whose first syllable causes neighbouring shoulders to slump. The one whose manner and self-interest overshadow their expertise and potential contribution.

When one of my fellow directors speaks, I imagine him strutting around the boardroom like a peacock. Someone on the management team usually comes under fire. With an expression that says, “I’m just so sorry,” I try to pivot the discussion back to a more respectful footing.

This guy should know better. He’s an experienced professional, not a newbie trying to prove his worth. If I’m honest with myself, however, his behaviour irks me because he’s showing me a mirror. There were times when my communications didn’t hit the mark either.

I’ve never turned a board meeting into an inquisition (or bird sanctuary), but any insecure overachiever knows the desire to demonstrate her worth. A few years ago, I would pore over my board binder, hoping to surface a blinding “Aha!” insight. My questions for management rarely made them the star of the show. And I certainly never considered how my comments could facilitate dialogue for other directors.

I’ve learned recently that the key to using questions constructively lies in the brief silence found in a conversation. Admittedly, the competition for air time can be fierce, so it’s tempting to jump in as soon as I see an opening. Pausing to ask 3 questions helps me lift my level of impact and build stronger relationships in the process.

Whom does my question serve?

Before I ask a question of management, I fast forward to the likely impact. If the question will improve my understanding of a governance issue at no expense to others, I ask it. But if it will cause collateral damage, I stop to find a better way of exploring the issue.

On the flip side, a question can shine a positive light on a colleague. An executive doesn’t have the chance to come across as CEO material if she rarely responds to a director. My question can improve a leader’s exposure to directors and raise the collective understanding of her business unit’s complexities. And when a pre-read deck exceeds 700 pages, the questions posed to management can highlight which reports were so good that they actually got read twice. The highest compliment we can pay an executive is a desire to learn more about her world, rather than puffing up our own standing among directors.

Is this question a reflection of my responsibility or my curiosity?

Every director has given in to his passion for certain subject matter. Painfully human, we can geek out with the best and brightest in our respective fields.

As fun as this might be, indulgent questions drag on a board’s productivity. When directors meet for as few as 15 days per year, every detour represents a lost chance to understand risk and opportunity better. On a social level, questions borne out of unchecked curiosity make a director appear out of touch with his peers.

How does this question build our shared understanding?

As a board meeting unfolds, I track the topics covered. Three or four themes usually emerge, illustrating directors’ areas of sensitivity that corral their articulated concerns together. My next question will advance our collective thinking if it is rooted in those themes.

For example, directors ask about inventory turns, foot traffic in stores, and website conversion. They all share a concern about whether our product is designed, merchandised and priced attractively. Are customers visiting our stores and website, but walking away empty-handed? Rather than diverting to the status of a new store opening, I can explore how we receive feedback on our product design, quality and presentation.

If other directors ask about thin margins, strained return on equity, and climbing costs, there may well be an underlying concern about our business model. Management may become defensive about their initiative spending and vision for growth and scale. Here, I would have an opportunity to dial back the focus on our belief in our current plan and the people leading it. Instead, I would seek an understanding of what management would do if financial performance weakens to an unacceptable level. What levers would they pull? Would our organizational capacity let us ride out rough waters for a few years or just a few months?


On a board, every moment spent together is an opportunity to evaluate one another. As tempting as it may be to measure up, we excel by shifting our awareness to others. Supporting an emerging leader or tying directors’ comments together creates a stronger foundation from which our own insights can launch. I look to find these opportunities in a pause before speaking.

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In the Silence: 3 Powerful Questions to Ask Before You Speak

by Tamara time to read: 3 min