Learning How to Question
Our ability to ask questions comes naturally, powered by an innate curiosity about the world around us.
Very soon after little kids learn how to say “baba” and “mama”, they start asking questions.
Not long after that, children reach the age of “why?” That’s the age when their favorite question is “why?”
“Why is this like this?” “Why is that like that?” “Why is such-and-such not like so-and-so?” And so on, and so on, and so on, all day, all night, all week, all month, again and again and again: “Why?”
Great parents, like great teachers, celebrate this “why” stage, and try to make it a positive turning point in the child’s development. The alternative, of course, is to get impatient and say “Stop asking all these silly questions!”
No matter how the parents handle the avalanche of “whys”, we can see from children’s behavior that the instinct of asking “why?” is deeply ingrained in human nature. It seems to have a very long shelf life.
That’s a good thing, because in business as well as life, asking the right question in the right way often means the difference between success and failure.
The ability to ask smart questions in an effective way is not intuitive. It is an acquired skill, one worthy of special effort to learn and improve upon.
In some career paths, learning how to ask questions is a part of the formal learning process. Think of television talk show hosts, psychiatrists, HR professionals, courtroom lawyers, investigative journalists, and so on.
Above and beyond these few career paths, however, the benefits of asking questions in a more effective way can accrue in any profession.
Conversely, the inability or unwillingness to ask the right question is often a recipe for failure. A prime example is the sales executive who begins pitching the customer without first asking about his or her needs. Game over.
There are countless variables in the calculus of questioning, which are obviously dependent on context, and to some extent, culture. Getting it right, and asking questions in an effective manner, requires three key elements: mental discipline, respect and trust.
The first, mental discipline, means thinking clearly in advance about the key information you want, and then framing your questions in such a way that you enhance your ability to obtain it. Well-thought out questions will achieve this, while at the same time making it more difficult for answers to be evasive or superficial.
An example of a poorly thought-out question, in a job interview setting, would be one in which the candidate is asked a “yes” or “no” question about whether or not they have strong problem solving abilities. Of course most would answer “yes”. A better alternative would be to phrase the question so the candidate is asked to describe a particular situation in which they demonstrated their problem solving abilities. HR 101.
The second part — respect — is also very important. A condescending or flippant attitude on the part of the questioner may push the train off the tracks. (Unless, of course you are the prison warden and the other party is a prisoner; but we’re talking about questioning here rather than interrogation.)
Through verbal and body language, the other party needs to sense your respect for them, their position, their intelligence, their precious time, and so on. Projecting humility and sincerity in this context is an asset because these are qualities we associate with good listeners, who are the kind of people we are more likely to open up to.
That sense of respect is also key to establishing the early stages of trust, or at least tempering any distrust which may be present beneath the surface.
Studs Terkel was a great American writer, broadcaster, historian and actor who died in 2008 at the age of 96. He had an incredible ability to interview total strangers from all different walks of life. Again and again, he succeeded in getting them to open up and tell him their life stories, warts and all. Terkel had the ability to win respect, establish trust, ask really good questions, and listen very carefully. As a result, he made enormous contributions to the oral history of America and the American people.
When I interviewed management guru Jim Collins in his offices in Boulder, Colorado, a few years ago, he observed that great leaders have a high question to statement ratio, as well as the ability to frame their questions differently than most people do. He said that aspiring leaders and managers should think about their question to statement ratio. He also observed that the questioning style of great leaders focuses on obtaining empirical evidence and facts, rather than opinion.
It’s really very simple. The smartest people ask the most questions. That’s how they got so smart.
Often, culture and customs inhibit people from asking questions, for fear of offending someone, or for fear of looking stupid by asking what others may think is a dumb question.
My guiding principle on this has always been that the only dumb question is the one you’re afraid to ask.
It’s really very simple. The smartest people ask the most questions. That’s how they got so smart. So, my advice is “keep on asking”, but think before you ask.
It’s a useful exercise to consider your question to statement ratio, and consider ways to improve the way you frame your questions.
But, please, don’t ask me “Why?”
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