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How to Ask Better Questions

| April 1, 2014

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading is How to Ask Better Questions.  The essay’s author is Judity Ross, a contributing writer and columnist for Talking Writing, an online literary magazine.  She has written numerous articles and reports for academy, corporate, and nonprofit organizations, including the Harvard Business School.

Several weeks ago, the Tuesday Reading was “Increase Your Team’s Curiosity” and focused on making fewer statements and asking more non-rhetorical questions in order to increase the team’s transparency and curiosity.  Today’s essay focuses on asking the right questions.

We’ve all had a staff member stick his head in our doorway and ask, “Got a minute?”  Usually this is the precursor for their “problem” becoming your “problem.”  We contribute to this through our willingness to help solve their problem.  And, solving their problem is often the fastest way to a solution.  But, it is one that impedes the staff member’s development, cheats you out of access to potentially fresh and powerful ideas, and places more work on your desk.

A more valuable approach is to ask the right questions, questions that enable the staff member to discover the solution himself.  You do this by asking questions that encourage the individual to think in new ways, to expand their vision, and enable them to contribute more value to the organization.

The questions you need to ask are often Why,“ ”How,“ or ”What do you think about…“  They set the stage for the individual to discover on their own solutions, to increase their competence, their confidence, and their ownership of the results.

Ross says that some of the most effective and empowering questions create value in the following sorts of ways:

1.  They create clarity:  ”Can you tell me more about …“

2.  They construct better working relationships:  ”How is implementation of the customer service dashboard going?

3.  They help people think analytically and critically:  “What are the consequences of taking your planned course of action?”  “If you succeed?”  If you fail?“

4.  They inspire people to reflect and see things in fresh, unpredictable ways:  ”Why did this work?“

5.  They encourage breakthrough thinking:  ”Is there another way to approach that?“

6.  They challenge assumptions:  ”What will you lose if you share responsibility for implementation?“

7.  They create ownership of solutions?  ”Based on your experience, what do you suggest?“

As a leader, it is up to you to model this question-asking approach.  Once it becomes natural for you, you’ll see some of your team begin to step up and use it as well.

In her essay, Ross reminds us that just as there are good questions, there are also questions not to ask in the team setting.  For example, questions like:

1.  Why are you behind schedule?

2.  What’s the problem with this project?

3.  Don’t you know better than that?

force an individual to take a reactive stance and shutdown opportunities for success.  You also don’t want to ask questions that inhibit candid answers and honest discussion.

As you work on asking more than telling, remember that you are ultimately only as successful as your team.  By asking the right questions you are helping them develop and become stronger as both individuals and as part of a higher performing team.

As Michael Marquardt, professor of human resources and international affairs at George Washington University (Washington, D. C.), said, ”You don’t have to have the answer to ask a great question.  A great question will ultimately get an answer.“

Start asking your great questions this week.  .  .     jim