The Art of Asking Questions

We’ve all heard “ask and you shall receive.” The power of asking is that it enables others to understand your wants, needs, and desires so they can act accordingly.  Because of this amazing power to deliver results, the art of asking questions is a key professional skill in the performance of all types of occupations.

In sales, the old adage is true: “Selling isn’t telling, it’s asking.” Professional sales people use effective questions to find out what is important to the buyer, discover their unmet needs and then fit their solution to those needs.

In management and leadership, the art of asking questions is as critical. It allows you to truly understand a situation before you prescribe a solution. It makes the person responding really think, and be prepared for a more through explanation. Effective leaders who master the art of asking questions are able to drive to the heart of the matter by clarifying the issue at hand. The process exposes answers given by rote, or methods that reflect the traditional “that’s the way we’ve always done things around here,” and requires employees to really think their answers through.

Effective problem solvers use questions to drive to the root cause of the situation. They keep on asking “why” until the true issues emerge. This approach emulates what 4 year olds do, asking “why” for every parental request or response. Ask any parent – multiple questions and answers may drive them crazy but also requires them to really think. Hey, it’s a valuable skill for getting beyond the patented superficial answers.

We are often asked, “Can a manager who has been trained in one functional area, be effective in another functional area?” If you are a manager who has little “expert” knowledge on the subject matter, the art of asking questions allows you to rapidly learn about your new functional area. It shows interest and curiosity that adds, rather than subtracts credibility. After all, the highly technical people already know what you don’t know; it’s not the time to fake it. Additionally, the nature of the questions you ask guides the people you manage in your new role to better understand your objectives and priorities.

Effective communicators are always asking questions to make sure that the message sent by them is on the same wavelength as the one received by the listener. They make sure their instructions are understood and clear the first time they are delivered.  And guess what? This saves companies time and money.

When it comes to effective leadership, just like the game show Jeopardy, the answer lies in the questions.

Question Asking Techniques

Here are just a few ideas about some specific questioning techniques:

  • Bracket-Focus
    • This is a technique used in games like 20 questions. The questions start broadly enough, and systematically get more focused and specific. The classic is “Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?” This immediately creates a classification for the right answer, but as importantly eliminates the wrong categories.
  • 5 Why’s
    • This is a technique that is focused on driving deep into an issue rather than wide. The purpose is to ask why in responding to any answer 5 times, in order to get to the real issue. The subject of each why is simply the answer to the previous question? Why didn’t we fill that client order? Because we ran out of raw material. Why did we run out of raw material. Because our supplier had no more inventory. Why didn’t our supplier have any inventory……you get the picture.
  • Checking Questions
    • Many leaders who support their people well are masters of asking checking questions. These leaders realize that even with the best intentions that instructions can be misunderstood, so they develop various ways to check that they have been clear. “So, what actions are you taking away from this meeting?”, or “Would you mind repeating the steps we discussed so I can make sure I didn’t miss anything?” are two ways you can clarify that you’ve provided the right instructions and have been fully understood.
  • The All Purpose
    • The classic, “Can you tell me more about that?” is a general question that can be used in a variety of circumstances. Others include, “How does that make you feel?”, “What makes you say that?”, and a favorite of facilitators who might be stumped, “What do the rest of you think about that?” Have some of these in your hip pocket to use when the other techniques aren’t appropriate or if you get stuck.

Try these techniques over the next couple of weeks and see how it impacts your communication and results.

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