Book Excerpt: Developing Proficiency in HR—Purposeful Discussion

By Debra Cohen, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP November 29, 2016
Book Excerpt: Developing Proficiency in HR—Purposeful Discussion

The following is excerpted from Chapter 4 of Developing Proficiency in HR: 7 Self-Directed Learning Activities for HR Professionals (SHRM, 2016), written by Debra Cohen, Ph.D., former senior vice president for SHRM.

The Socratic method is often thought of as a form of teaching or as a teaching tactic. It can be a powerful method for directing the learner toward critical thinking. The leader of the dialogue in the Socratic method asks probing questions with the objective being critical thought—typically in the area of values, beliefs, and principles. And while Socrates focused on moral education, HR professionals can apply this method to learning more about themselves and critically evaluating knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs) as well as developing KSAOs based on the evaluation. To this end, let's consider how to have purposeful discussion that leads to learning and understanding which behaviors are successful in which circumstances and which may be less successful. Asking questions can lead to greater understanding of a person's actions in a given context and of which behaviors may be more effective than others. Responses to questions can provide awareness of options to be employed in similar situations. If we are to learn from others' behaviors and actions and to develop our own behaviors and actions, we need to know how to process and filter the information. One way to do this is by asking better questions and by being systematic in how we approach asking questions and engaging in discussions.

Getting Started

First, think about what you are trying to accomplish or what you want to gain by asking your questions and engaging in dialogue. Go back to your self-assessment and consider what areas you need to develop and which ones may be well suited to questions and discussion. For example, if you would like to build your ability to develop relationships at the executive level, then you need to pose your questions in a way that will provide you with the vision and perception of how you should behave in the future. Or if you want to build your global and cultural effectiveness, then you may take a different approach. Here are a few things to think about in forming your questions.

Avoid Categorical Questions

For competency development purposes, try not to ask simple yes or no questions.  As a rule, you will likely receive less complete or insightful responses. For example, "Have you been developing a relationship with this insurance vendor for a long time?" versus "How long have you been developing the relationship with this vendor, and what has been most effective in developing the relationship?" Or "Have you traveled to China on business before?" versus "What have been your experiences in traveling to China, and what are some important things to know?"


Have a follow-up question ready. In some situations, you may be looking for factual information, and probing may or may not be necessary. But if you're asking questions for the purpose of building your competencies and creating a dialogue rather than as part of a routine inquiry, then you want someone else's keen understanding and perception. For instance, you can follow up with a specific question about the response, or ask "What makes you say that?" or "What makes you think that?" The reason for asking a probing follow-up question is not simply to take on someone else's opinion or view; it will help you develop your own sentiment or conviction that is based on hearing a variety of viewpoints. For example, "How does this insurance vendor compare with other insurance brokers you've dealt with in the past?" Or "Yes, I've heard that following protocol is highly valued in China—was there anything in particular that one should avoid doing?"

Zip Your Lip

Silence can be uncomfortable, but it can also be potent. If someone does not answer right away, wait for a response. If the answer is short, wait for someone to say more by looking a bit quizzical. The person you're talking to may have a lot more to say and will bring it out if you wait patiently. Often people feel compelled to fill in the silence and may provide more critical insight if you do not say anything.

Listen Intently and Do Not Interrupt

The people with whom you are speaking want to be valued. They are more likely to keep talking if they feel valued by you. Moreover, you do not want to risk any distraction—particularly if they are describing a behavior or their motivation behind a behavior. If they happen to be conveying something you already know (about insurance vendors or China, for example), let this be a repetition for you and nod encouragingly as you think of a probing follow-up questions. Which HR behavioral competency you're focusing on may also make a difference. For example, if you are dialoguing with someone with the intent to learn about leadership and navigation, then letting the person talk in an open way may be more insightful with respect to how he or she approaches the situation versus if you ask more, or leading, questions.

Ask the Right Kinds of Questions

Make sure that your questions fit the situation. A question in and of itself may not be inappropriate, but it may not be the right question in a given context.  For example, if you are discussing an ethical dilemma with a colleague, asking about someone else's ethical behavior may be inappropriate. In addition, you should ask questions that empower the respondent to answer in a forthright and helpful manner, such as "I value your views on HR in China since you have traveled there and I have not—what was your biggest surprise, either positive or negative?"

Don't Be Afraid of the Answer You Might Receive

If you're asking a question about a vendor or trying to understand why a colleague handled a situation in a particular way, there's not much to fear, and you can may gain some interesting ideas about how you might behave in the future. For instance, "My last experience engaging an insurance broker was a bit of a disaster. Apparently, I asked a question she found insulting; how can I avoid something like that in the future?"

Get Personal

Don't be afraid to get personal and ask for specific feedback. For example, you might ask a colleague, supervisor, or even a subordinate, "How do you think I could have handled that situation differently?" Don't ask "How did I do?" because it does not open the door wide enough for feedback. After explaining something, ask "Have I been clear? (rather than "Do you understand?") Did I explain my interaction with the insurance broker sufficiently? I must've done something to elicit that response." Often, the more specific you can be, the better.

Be a Leader

The use of questions or dialogue can also be a way to help others and to create mutually beneficial exchanges. Be open to questions that you receive. If someone asks you about an insurance broker, you may actually find your response to be insightful. Responding why you found one better than another may actually help you articulate something you had not thought of previously. Displaying your own expertise in a dialogue with responses to questions can be enlightening.

Debra Cohen, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is consultant/president with Deb Cohen, LLC and former senior vice president for knowledge development at SHRM.

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