Asking Questions

By: Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading, Asking Questions, is an essay written by Diane Weller, shortly after the April Tuesday Reading series on asking questions.  Diane is a member of the Information Technology Services Staff at the Pennsylvania State University and is an alumnus of the MOR Leaders Program.

April’s Tuesday Readings offered us a wonderful series of readings on the important subject of asking questions.  The readings led me to reflect on what I think is perhaps the best question I ever asked myself or another person:  “What would I (you) do, if I (you) weren’t afraid?”   It’s open-ended, thought-provoking and empowering.  It is a question that can be asked of an individual, a team or an organization.

Stopping to ask powerful questions, without judging or bias, leads to discovery and new possibilities.  Dr. Phil asks such a question when he asks “How is that working for you?”  As suggested in the first Tuesday Reading of the April series, we don’t take the time to stop, ask questions and explore.  The risk in not stopping is the loss of an opportunity to discover better ways of doing things, which may result in the delivery of subpar work or service, because the focus was on “just get it done.”

It is also interesting to consider how asking “powerful” questions reduces the time and energy in getting to goal.  Just as 20% of your actions, inputs, or products or services will create 80% of outputs, according to the Pareto Principle, fewer questions and less energy are required when asking only essential, laser-like, powerful questions.

I have dominant natural strengths in the themes of deliberative and strategic, so I ask lots of questions.  While this may all sound well and good, I have learned, through some hard lessons, that the type and timing of questions is important.  For instance, the relationship you have may not be strong enough or ready for the question.  I’ve also learned the importance of helping others understand that my strategic thinking is not an attempt to belittle, challenge or argue their ideas, but instead is my natural propensity to consider all the facets of a plan objectively in the interest of accomplishing the team’s goal.

Once, while in a coaching conversation, I received this response to a question that I had asked:  “I don’t know if I like that question – perhaps because it’s a good question.”  Initially, I viewed that feedback as affirmation of my ability to ask good questions.  With deeper thought, however, it caused me to remember advice that I had heard in a communications workshop with a prominent community leader.  Her advice was this – learn how to ask very good questions that nobody can take issue with.  Although the ways in which someone can take issue with a question vary, knowing there’s a negative and positive perspective to everything, we are wise to take the positive, when crafting our questions. 

The purpose of all questions is to gain understanding.  Understanding cannot occur, however, through questions alone.  We cultivate understanding when we listen well and utilize the power of silence.  We cannot craft an effective question, if we are not listening well.  The use of silence, despite the awkwardness it can create, makes room for deeper thought and the discomfort it might create moves one to say more.

Asking good questions is a skill requiring lots of practice and is used to get information or cause reflection.  The impact good questions can have on your work and your relationships, makes it worth the effort. 

In the coming week, think about Diane’s advice when you’re about to pose a question.  Is it a good question?  Will it be seen in a positive light?  Will it help you gain understanding?  And, after you ask, do listen and give your conversation partner the space to answer your question and provide the understanding you seek.


Have a great week.  .  .  .    jim

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