Questions are a useful way to demonstrate intent. The way you ask a question in a discussion, for example, can clearly indicate if you want to contradict, challenge or learn.
However, questions are only good replacements for intent if you don’t have enough context.
If you are meeting an acquaintance who reached out for a favor, “how can I help?” is a good question to ask. Most people tend to be reluctant about asking for favors. So, asking “how can I help” sets the tone and demonstrates that you intend to help. Besides, you only have limited time with your acquaintances. So, it also helps center the conversation.
However, I’ve learnt time and again that “how can I help?” is a poor question in a conversation with a close friend, team member or spouse. Instead, it is best to stay engaged and listen – the opportunity to help will reveal itself over the course of a conversation. If time is limited, a question like “what’s top of mind” works better. That’s because you have a great opportunity to demonstrate intent by just showing up and listening. Asking “how can I help” feels like a lazy, insincere, substitute. Asking “will x help,” on the other hand, works much better because it shows you’ve given possible solutions thought.
Questions are powerful ways to show intent. So, it matters that we’re intentional about how we use them.