Asking Questions

By: Jim Bruce

It was Voltaire who said: “It is easier to judge the mind of a man by his questions rather than his answers.”

Mark Suster, entrepreneur turned venture capitalist said it this way: “The ability to ask questions effectively is one of the most important skills in business as is the ability to actively listen.”Yet, these skills are not widely taught anywhere. It’s estimated that 70-80% of our kids’ dialogue is question-driven. Yet their parents’ dialogues are only 15-20% question-driven. And, this appears to be true in all aspects of one’s life.
An obvious question we might ask then is why do adults stop asking questions.  Several answers have been suggested:

  • From our first day in school, and really throughout our working lives, we are rewarded for our answers, not for our questions.
  • The pace of work, and life, is driven by “just get it done.” There’s no time to stop, ask questions, explore.
  • We may feel that asking a question will make us seem weak.
  • We believe that asking a question will make you vulnerable; after all, as the leader, you’re supposed to have the answers.
  • Sometimes we feel that we will lose control of the dialogue if we ask a question.
  • And, sometimes we are embarrassed to ask, not realizing that the worst kind of question is the unasked question.

Many of the times when we don’t ask, we make assumptions. And, assumptions can be wrong leading to all manner of unforeseen consequences. (Every time I see the word “assume,” I remember the comment of a very wise man: “When you make an assumption you always create an opportunity to make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u”’ and/or ‘me.’ It always makes me stop and think, just a bit more.)
Ron Ashkenas,managing partner of Schaffer Consulting and author of Simply Effective,suggests that there are three areas where improved questioning can strengthen a leader’s effectiveness:

  • Questions about yourself. Good leaders are always asking themselves and others about what they could do better or differently. Making the time for reflection and to get candid and constructive feedback is a must.
  • Questions about plans and projects. Leaders need to probe the thought processes of their own leaders and their staff. The challenge is to ask questions in a way that advances the work, that builds relationships, and that helps everyone involved learn and develop. You want to empower, to be inclusive, to challenge assumptions, to lead the responder to stretch, and to encourage breakthrough thinking.
  • Questions about the organization. Leaders have a responsibility to look for ways for the organization to deliver better results and to function more effectively. Why do we do it this way? Could we do it better?

In future Tuesday Readings, we’ll continue to explore the subject of asking questions. In the meantime, think about questions you might ask in each of these three areas and begin to practice. And, in addition, look for opportunities to ask questions instead of simply making assumptions.  
Make it a great week for your team and for you. .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Mark Suster, Asking Questions More, June 2010.
  2. Ron Ashkenas, The Art of Asking Questions, Harvard Business Review, June 2011.
  3. Ron Ashkenas, Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done, December 2009.

Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared as the Tuesday Reading for April 14, 2015.

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