“Knowledge is knowing the right answer. Intelligence is asking the right questions.” – Unknown.
When I teach my “Leading People” module at a business school, I always start by asking the students what they’re going to do to make a difference as leaders. Usually their answers sound a bit like the “world peace” platitudes we hear at major beauty contests. (By the way, despite many contests over the years, we still don’t have world peace!)
Asking that specific question at the beginning of a course may seem a tad unfair, but there’s a reason for doing it. I want to compare the answers we get from this question with the answers we get from better questions at the end of the module. When I repeat the exercise, I ask the students why they want to be business leaders. The “why” question addresses purpose and passion.
“Why do you want to be business leader?”
“I want to help develop others and give them great opportunities.”
Then I move to a “how” question to uncover the vehicle they’re going to use to bring the why to life.
“How do you see yourself doing that?”
“By starting a business where we’ll have a strong focus on giving our employees excellent opportunities for growth.”
Lastly, I ask a “what” question about the physical business and day-to-day actions.
“What are you going to do in your business?”
“We’re going to source the best kitchen products from all over the world and sell them in a megastore with a state-of-the-art test kitchen where we’ll also demonstrate how to use the products.”
The question at the beginning of the module is a weak one, and it leads to mediocre answers. There’s nothing solid that leads up to the question, and it puts the focus in the wrong place. The questions at the end make sense logically and they put the focus in the right place: on purpose and motivation.
Usually no one realizes that it’s a weak question. Here’s why: when we hear a question we’re so conditioned to give an answer, that we hardly ever stop to think about the quality of the question. We don’t question the question.
The Art of Asking Good Questions
In our Twitter chat last Friday we discussed the art of asking good questions. Although good questions are at the heart of effective communication, there are times when you shouldn’t ask questions, and there are also times when asking questions may be difficult.
Here are the questions we asked, and some of your responses.
Q1 Why is it important to master the art of asking good questions?
@dshlvrsn You don’t know until you ask. There is no substitute. Not observing, not doing and especially not guessing.
@imaginyst Mastering good question asking is important because it is fundamental to the art of good communication.
Q2 In which situations do you find asking questions to be powerful?
@JKatzaman Asking questions is most powerful amid uncertainty. Critical information received could change your destiny.
@LorenMargolis When there is a need to deepen trust and bridge communication differences. Questions show our desire to truly understand intent.
Some practical advice came from @harrisonia: It’s important to ask your medical, insurance, and tax professionals good questions because they can affect the outcome of your life.
Q3 In which situations do you find asking questions to be difficult?
Sometimes it’s difficult to ask questions, but we still have to ask them.
@ChaimShapiro It can be difficult to ask hard questions to people who have authority over you.
@Jikster2009 When I already know the answer but have to ask; when it is unexpected by the recipient or when it could open a can of worms.
@AubItsGreatUF Asking questions can be difficult when the topic is emotional, private or traumatic. Being sensitive to others is very important.
Q4 How can asking yourself good questions help you?
It’s easy to declare yourself a victim simply by the questions you ask yourself. Asking yourself good questions can help you develop self-awareness and balance your locus of control.
@jeremypmurphy One of my goals is to learn something new everyday. If I don’t ask questions, it’s tougher to learn.
@ZalkaB It’s a great exercise and tool to help to learn about yourself, about your setbacks, fears or just an expedition of your inner map.
Q5 How do you deal with questions like, “Why does this always happen to me?”
@WonderPix> Some questions need to be questioned. “Really, is that true?” “Why do you think/feel that?” “What is behind that question?”
@BiscuitByte Challenge the negative thinking and encourage the person, helping them to put things back into perspective.
Q6 What are some examples of empowering questions?
Empowering questions help us make the distinction between truth and perception. They can also help us see opportunities instead of obstacles.
@MicheleDD_MT How can I make a difference in this world? What is the legacy I want to leave? How can I turn this around?
@SanabriaJav What resources do you need to succeed?
@haeheti4 Like asking yourself: Am I under pressure? What is the outcome if I did this?
Q7 When shouldn’t you ask questions?
@amypen64 When the person has shut down, you are getting nowhere and only making the situation worse.
@KLC2978 When it’s clear the other person needs to talk. When encouraging others to come up with ideas/solutions themselves.
@Midgie_MT When someone is having an intense emotional release (such as crying). Let the emotion subside before asking questions.
Q8 What can you do to ensure that your questioning does not come across as interrogation?
@Limha75 Avoid “scattergunning” and wait for a natural break (or until the end). Your question might get answered before you ask it!
@E_Toohig Tone of voice, body language and facial expressions say as much about the emotion and intent behind the question as your words.
Q9 How did you handle feeling “shut down” because of someone’s questions?
@TwisterKW I need time. Darn tears. May need to walk away. Try ask my own questions or find way to gain some control, even if just of self.
@maat333 Looking for the reason, analysing what happened, learning in the process and for the future. It’s not always bad (another way to grow).
Q10 If you could give others one bit of advice about asking good questions, what would it be?
@MaryEllenGrom Do your homework first. Ask to learn, not hear.
@Yolande_MT Ask more than you tell. Listen more than you talk.
We close on a cheerful note with this answer from @BrainBlenderTec: Any good question and answer is like a tango: you leave a bit of yourself and gain understanding of each other.
Next time, on #MTtalk…
Restructuring is a reality that many of us have had to go through. In our Twitter poll this week we ask how you’re most likely to cope with an organizational restructure. Please vote over here to let us know.
In our next #MTtalk on Friday, June 9, our topic is “Coping with Restructuring.” To share your thoughts and ideas, please join us at 1pm EST/ 5pm GMT/ 10:30pm IST.
To participate in our chat about coping with restructuring, type #MTtalk in the Twitter search function. Then, click on “All Tweets” and you’ll be able to follow the live chat feed. To join the conversation, simply include #MTtalk in your tweet and it will show up in the chat feed.
In the meantime, here are some resources that will help you learn more about the art of asking good questions: