The truth is, most of us are pretty poor at asking questions. We can all do it, of course; we can all ask ‘What’s your name?’ without thinking too much. But once we move up the questioning hierarchy we need to do just that – think.
Asking a good question isn’t something we just do and by ‘good’ I mean a question that delivers useful answers. Formulating questions of this kind is a skill that allows us to extract extra value, and therefore learning, during our conversations with clients, teams, mentors, groups – in fact just about everybody. For those of us in new business, honing our questioning skills means that we can probe deeper and understand better our prospects’ nuanced thinking and needs.
So, how do we ask better questions?
The 5 Ws
A friend of mine, a journalist at Bloomberg TV, regularly conducts interviews with the global titans of the financial world. When I asked him what he thought made these encounters so successful, even with strait-laced business leaders whom I assumed were pretty tough to crack, he spoke about the importance of doing his prep, of adopting an easy going conversational style (making interviewees feel at ease) and deploying well-rehearsed questioning techniques. Chief amongst these, he said, were the 5 Ws, with an H thrown in because that’s important too. They are: “who” “what” “where” “when” “why” “how”.
These open-ended questions are valuable if our aim is to elicit an answer that includes consideration and assessment. We can learn more from these types of questions but the trick is not to make them too open. “What’s the most important issue you wish to solve?” is too expansive, it has no context, no framing, and as such presents a dizzying array of possible answers. “What’s the most important commercial issue for your brand that you’d like us to solve?” sets that context.
These have a value if what we want is a clear, unequivocal answer, for example:
“Do you think” “would” “is” “should” “did.” These closed questions are often asked of politicians, in an attempt to avoid evasive answers. Witness Jeremy Paxman’s notorious interview with Michael Howard – the line of interrogation failed, in hilarious fashion.
The problem with closed questions is that they can betray the complexity of the issue. They are not effective if our goal is to enhance and deepen our knowledge and understanding. To flip it to an open question, simply add the prefix “what”.
These are the worst types of questions because they come with an implicit, anticipated answer. “Don’t you agree that the presentation was a failure?” This kind of questioning seeks to force agreement and has no value at all. We think we already know the answer. “What did you think of the presentation?” potentially opens up a more productive line of enquiry, and quite possibly something to learn from.
Ask more questions
Sometimes when we ask questions, we’re unsure if we fully understand the answers. This can be due to a number of reasons, for instance the answer is vague or the logic unclear. Or maybe it’s just us, we simply don’t follow. What we need at this point is clarification, so we shouldn’t be fearful of interjecting, courteously of course, with another well-formulated question.
Mastering the art of good questioning helps us become more effective and productive across all our interactions. The trick then is to master the art of listening.