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Asking Good Questions

| April 21, 2015

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading, Asking Good Questions, continues the series begun last week.  There we noted that asking good questions is as important as listening well.  After all, a major part of a leader’s job is initiating and building relationships, collaborating to craft a vision and strategies, developing an understanding of the work and desired results, as well as leading his or her team.  You really cannot do any of this work well without being proficient in asking questions.
Were you studying to be a journalist, you would be schooled in the 5 Ws and 1 H – “who,” “what,” “why,” “when,” “where,” and “how,” six words to use in asking questions when covering a story.  Beginning questions with one of these words invites your respondent to talk, to tell you in some detail about what you ask.  In other words, it’s an invitation to have an open conversation.  Conversely, beginning a question with “is,” “are,” “could,” “should,” “don’t you think,” etc. signals that you are closed, and are only interested in a simple answer, often either “yes” or “no.”  In most instances, you will want to ask open questions, stimulate a conversation, and listen carefully to the responses.
Jeff Haden, contributing editor at Inc., and the authors of Negotiation Skills in a Day for Dummies provide sets of helpful guidelines for developing good, well-crafted questions that lead to deeper thinking, generating new ideas, and identifying new possibilities.  Their guidelines include:

  • Know your purpose.  Every question should help you gather the information you need.
  • Plan your questions before your conversation.  Outline the information you seek and the questions you need to ask to get that information. 
  • Ask open-ended questions.  For example, ask questions like “What options are you considering?” rather than “Do you plan to use (a named specific approach)?”  By asking an open-ended question you gain insight into the respondent’s thinking. 
  • In the conversation state any necessary background to the question and then limit your actual question to one sentence.  By asking only one question, you help your respondent focus and yourself to ask an open question.
  • Provide options within the question only if there really are options.  And, remember unless you are really an expert in the area, you will likely not identify all the options.  Once you have an answer, you can ask follow-up questions.
  • Use language consistent with your respondent’s frame of reference.  In particular, step away from jargon and unnecessary technical details.
  • Use neutral wording.  Even though you may have a preferred response in mind, step away from asking your question in a way that signals that preference.  Such a leading or biased question will provide significantly less information than asking an answer-neutral question.
  • Follow these same principles – short, open, neutral – as you ask more specific follow up questions.
  • Transition naturally to your next question by using something in the response to help frame that next question.
  • Ask only essential questions.  If the information you’d get from the answer is not of interest to you, don’t ask the question.
  • Generally, don’t interrupt.  Listen to your respondent’s full answer.  It isn’t polite to interrupt and it disrupts the individual’s thought process and can easily take them off-course.  The exception is when the individual has already gone far afield.  In such situations, it may be appropriate to gently interrupt and steer the person back to the topic, saying something like “Sam, it would really be helpful to me if you would say more about _____.”
  • Talk as little as possible.  You know what you know.  Your questions are designed to find out what your respondent knows.

Asking good questions takes lots of practice.  So, it’s time now for you to start your practice.  Think about the meetings, including one-on-ones, that you have and, in your planning time for those meetings, think about the information you need from the meetings and begin to use these tools to guide you in forming the questions you will ask.  I believe you’ll find that it makes a difference.  Next week, we’ll look again at this topic focusing on some questions you might ask of yourself, characteristics of the questions you may want to ask, how you might better shape an area for discussion, how you can use follow-up questions, and the issue of avoiding bad questions.
I hope that you have a wonderful week and that you ask a lot of questions.
.  .  .  .     jim

  1. Michael J. Marquardt, Leading with Questions:  How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask, as summarized by Stephanie Vozza in an essay, How to Ask Better Questions.
  2. Companion content from E-Book Negotiation Skills in a Day for Dummies, Ten Tips for Asking Good Questions.
  3. Jeff Haden, 5 Ways to Ask the Perfect Question.