Want to create more employee participation? A key ingredient is the ability of leaders to engage employees in two-way communication. In fact, how well leaders answer questions can mean the difference between encouraging employees to speak freely and shutting people down. Here’s how to coach your leaders to be more successful, whether answering questions in a large-group venue or responding to feedback in a one-on-one encounter.

  1. Clarify leaders’ communication role
    So much emphasis is placed on presentations that it’s no wonder that leaders get the mistaken impression that their communication responsibility ends with the last PowerPoint slide. But the truth is that employees feel that the presentation is just the show—it’s how the leader responds to questions that really engages employees in the content.

    Leaders need to understand how important questions and answers are to the success of communication. One way to get this on a leader’s radar screen is to clarify leaders’ communication roles by describing expectations about how leaders should respond to questions. Put this communication role in writing, and be prepared to work it through with leaders to create awareness and build commitment.

  2. Prepare leaders with answers
    The hardest questions for leaders to deal with are those they don’t know how to answer. That’s why a tried-and-true tool—a document with Frequently Asked Questions (and their answers)—is an effective technique for nearly every routine issue. One pitfall to avoid when creating FAQs is to omit questions that are too hard or for which the answers are not known. Leaders need a response to these types of questions (even if the response is, “We don’t know.”) even more than they do for questions that have factual answers.

    For more emotional or difficult issues, leaders may need more extensive preparation. In those cases, take a cue from politicians and executives who need to deal with the media by holding a mock Q&A session. Create the toughest questions you can think of—the real busters—and develop honest answers. Then role-play with the leader to give him or her an opportunity to rehearse.

  3. Help leaders stimulate dialogue
    It may seem counterintuitive, but the least effective way to begin a Q&A session is by saying, “Does anyone have any questions?” This question sets the expectation that only people who don’t understand something that has been shared will speak up. And that puts employees in the role of students, not smart participants.

    Instead, coach leaders to try a different approach. Try, “Based on what I’ve just told you, what will be the hardest aspects to accomplish?” This approach creates two-way communication in a way that makes people more comfortable about participating.