Asking the right question is essential to getting a good answer… or so goes the assumption. Practice in the real world, however, is something quite different and often quite challenging.
Over the past week, I had two revealing conversations: one with a colleague, and one with a client. Both were having challenges with their bosses. And these weren’t just minor challenges – both colleague and client were considering some kind of exit (either transfer to another team or searching for a new opportunity in another company).
In the first situation, my client was seriously overworked and had been for some time. Each time she thought she was getting a handle on the work, new projects would appear on her desk, most of them generated from her boss’s office. When she approached her boss about this issue, he would listen intently and nod appropriately. At the end of her presentation, she would ask “what can I do?” At that point he would launch into various solutions about time management, delegation, etc. Never once did the crux of the problem get mentioned: her boss’s contribution to the problem.
In a second situation, my colleague was hugely frustrated by his boss’s apparent continued dismissal of suggestions to improve program relevance and accessibility for his adult learners in a graduate course. Each time he made a suggestion, it would be deferred, referred onwards, or dismissed. When I probed about the essence of their conversation, the question asked was, “why wasn’t this suggestion accepted?” The discussion never focused on the state of the current relationship between my colleague and his boss.
So, why don’t we ask better questions? Or at least ask those that get to the heart of the matter? We should be taking time to think carefully about how best to structure our questions – that is, asking the best question we can craft. Unfortunately in our culture, in our rush to get to ‘the answer’, there’s not a lot of effort or time put into thinking, “is this a good question?” Combine that with our predominant focus on facts, quick decisions and immediate action, and it’s clear why we struggle to ask insightful questions. If there’s an emotional element as well, we’re likely reluctant to probe an issue or delve into difficult terrain.
These seven suggestions can help you craft more effective questions that generate better answers:
- Is this question relevant to the experience of the person who will be exploring and answering it? Will the person actually be able respond appropriately based on their knowledge, expertise or experience?
- Is this a genuine question – a question to which I really don’t know the answer? Or am I just ‘fishing’ around the edges to build my confidence, test my listener or surface a difficult issue?
- What outcome do I want this question to accomplish? That is, what kind of insights, meanings and conclusions do I believe this question will evoke in those who will be exploring it?
- Is this question likely to uncover new thinking, feelings or aspirations? Is it familiar enough to be understandable and relevant—and yet different enough to encourage a new response?
- What assumptions or beliefs are ‘baked’ into the way the question is crafted? How will these affect the accuracy and scope of the answer?
- Is this question likely to generate creative solutions and new possibilities or will it maintain a focus on past problems and obstacles? Will this limit our ability to move forward in a meaningful way?
- Does this question encourage new and different questions to be raised as the original question is explored? Or will it narrow the possibilities for further discussion and insight?