How to ask the best questions

I have a page of notes in my notebook about asking questions.  In the spirit of breaking the mold of my blogging, I will dump it here unedited…  and a bit of commentary and James Joyce style flow of consciousness thinking to follow.

  • The best answer is a question.
  • Ask question = control power, help other learn.
  • Getting to an answer is easy, asking the right question is the challenge.
  • You don’t change your life by changing the answers, you change your life by asking new questions.  Change “what am I here for?” to “how can I best serve those around me?”  This immediately shifts the line of the answers.
  • “Nobody knows as much as everybody.”

And so to flow…

Steve Shapiro, my mentor at Accenture, has a nice story on his TEDx speech at NASA recently.  He talks of a situation familiar to many.  Can you remember the last time you lost your keys?  You searched.  You began in the obvious spots. Friends provided the wonderful advice “Where did you last have them? They’ll probably be there.”  You search.  In frustration you look in all sorts of places.  Eventually you find them.  The relief is palpable.  The same friend asks “Where did you find them?”  You answer “You know, it was strange.  I found them in the last place that I looked for them.”.

This is the danger of knowing the answer, of expertise, of experience.  We stop when we find the keys.  We stop when we find the first viable solution.  We stop when we get to good enough.  We don’t go on and come up with 10 more solutions that might actually be extraordinary.  I believe that forcing myself into the habit of almost always responding with a question might just allow me to get beyond the spot where I left the keys, the first viable solution.
Image credit: 37signals

“Don’t ask questions unless you genuinely want to know the answer.” Gary Cohen

Gary Cohen on a post on the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation website gives six ways to improve the way you ask. I like “don’t ask questions unless you genuinely want to know the answer.”  This can be a challenge.

John Baldoni in the Harvard Business Review writes a post Learn to Ask Better Questions. He offers 4 ways to improve your questions be curious, be open-ended, be engaged and dig deeper.

Another entrepreneurial friend of mine, Jonathan Davis of Hire Better told me how a mentor of his explained “problems rise to the level that they are allowed to rise”.  “Don’t provide the answer if your co-worker is responsible for the decision.”  In Jonathan’s company they have a fun way of returning responsibility to the person: “That’s your monkey”.

Problems are Like Monkeys

An employee approached Jonathan recently “would you have a quick look at my proposal.  I don’t know whether the client wants X”.  Before Jonathan could respond, the person saw his little wink and said “I know, its my monkey…  I just…  You are right…  it is my monkey.”  It is so difficult in these moments not to provide an answer when you feel you know the answer…  it is much more valuable to give a question that allows the person to grow.

Jonathan tells me that the US military has changed its command philosophy recently.  Gone are the days of 27 step process plans.  They have left details plans and moved to communicating why and how and letting juniors solve the what.  I’ll give an example of this idea:

If you give a friend directions to your house “turn left, third right, second left, straight through 3 traffic lights, past the big tree, left and first house on the right” – if they hit roadworks and have to divert, they are lost.  If you say “head north to the river, find the metal bridge and our house is the third one back on the south side” – they still have a chance of reaching your house even if there are roadworks, changes in road layout.  The first set of instructions are correct but highly brittle.  The role of the leader is to point out Everest, give some limits in terms of acceptable behaviour and values and then ask the junior officers to get there.  This is much more robust and allows the organisation to deal with changes in the environment.

The biographers of Rockerfeller often quoted people reporting that in meetings he would sit and not say anything.  Many times he would appear to not be listening.  However when he did speak, it was always a question that would break the status quo of the discussion and bring out new viewpoints on a challenge.  The same is reported of Michael Dell.  He doesn’t speak much in meetings, but when he does it is almost always a question.

As a business school professor I teach by asking questions, but I don’t teach the students how to ask the right questions.  Verne Harnish said “we are all good at finding the answer to a question – the best leaders help find the right questions”.

Who asks good questions?  What does a good question look like?

11 responses to “How to ask the best questions”

  1. […] to open up to change?  Ask great questions: Read How to ask great questions? and 15 Great questions to ask your […]

  2. Very insightful, like we speak more than hearing g same we like to solve the problem than bouncing a question.

  3. […] How important is it for you to find a mentor? I recall an entrepreneurship lesson from Brad Feld: “Rule #1 for business: Get a mentor. Love your mentor. Embrace your mentor. Stay close to your mentor. Listen. Ask questions.” […]

  4. […] Startup Rule #1 from Brad Feld: Get a mentor.  Love your mentor.  Embrace your mentor. Stay close to your mentor.  Listen.  Ask questions. […]

  5. […] need lots of help.  More than you can imagine. You need to learn to ask for it. (Ask better questions, 17 habits for a fulfilling life […]

  6. […] admirado Conor Neill, profesor del IESE y autor de un magnífico blog sobre comunicación, habla en este post sobre el poder de las buenas preguntas. El problema es que desde pequeñitos la educación formal […]

  7. […] List good questions – “what other criteria are important to you in taking this decision?” (old post: How to ask the best questions) […]

  8. […] Ask Questions – How to ask better questions here. […]

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