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On the Job

7 steps to asking better, smarter questions

By Andrew Finlayson

Adapted from the author’s book “Questions That Work: How to Ask Questions That Will Help You Succeed in Any Business Situation” (Amacom)

Questions provide clarity and direction. They allow us to sift through the day’s conversations, catch up with what’s going on and cut through the clutter.

Asking the right questions can also lead to resourcefulness—but not because resourceful people know all the answers. Rather, it’s because resourceful people are prepared to deal with the unknown and more confident of their ability to find solutions by knowing what questions to ask.

Most problem-solving and reporting techniques share a simple question-and-answer pattern. You start to define the issue by asking who, what, why, where and when questions. Then you ask follow-up questions to reduce the issue to smaller, more digestible slices.

Positive questioning inspires problem-solving and may also trigger the creative process. The heart of creativity is to question what is—leading to what could be. The best creativity concepts share what if questions and attitudes that, together, bring fresh connections and possibilities.

Why people don’t ask more questions

Asking good questions can be difficult, of course, and there are some hurdles to honest, open inquiry such as the following:

Fear of getting into trouble. Some questions are asked in order to fix responsibility or assign blame. A tone or gesture can turn a friendly question into a threat. Even asking someone “Why did you do that?” can imply something’s wrong.

Fear of losing face. Some people feel that the less they ask, the more they will appear to know. “What if I ask a question that everyone assumes I know the answer to already?” They may also be concerned that a manager will reject their query or dismiss it as unimportant.

Fear of reprisal. The giving and withholding of answers (as well as favors) is a time-honored way to control the levers of organizational power. How far you can go in questioning those above you in the hierarchy depends largely on your present and perceived value to the organization.

Fear of being isolated. We may not want to admit it, but we’re all susceptible to “group think” at times—even unconsciously. This can result in a subtle, underlying fear of being “cast out” if we diverge too much from the group’s overall direction—if our questions seem to put us too far out on a limb.

7 steps to better questions

There’s no quick and easy route to becoming a skillful questioner, but we can all move in that direction. Here’s a seven-step process that will serve as a helpful guide to asking better questions.

1 Awareness. What do you really want to know? Define your purpose. Identify what you need to know, when you need to know it and how to focus your questions on the right information at the right time.

2 Ability. Who has the expertise and the authority to answer your question? Who has mastery of the topic and the time and willingness to be helpful?

3 Atmosphere. Decide when and where to ask your questions. Ask: Is this a good time to talk? Do you mind if I ask you a question? If you receive a controversial answer to any question, don’t interrupt. Listen—even if you don’t want to. Understand first and judge later.

4 Attitude. Think about how to phrase and present your question. Don’t pose it as a challenge. Find a way to establish a relationship, a shared sense of purpose and degree of trust. Try asking: “Can you help me solve this problem?” You might follow that with: “The reason I ask is…”

5 Answer. Did you get what you needed? Check your listening skills—they are critical: “If I hear you correctly, you are saying…” Listen for what you wanted to know and also for what you did not expect to hear. Go beyond facts and ask for the person’s opinion. Just remember, when you seek an opinion, you are honor bound to pay attention and not immediately counter it.

6 Appreciation. Relationships are formed by showing respect and appreciation. Acknowledge the other person’s perspective and pressures. “Yes, that’s a problem but how are we going to resolve it?” When you thank someone for answering a question, ask yourself: “Did I give the person a reason to help me in the future?”

7 Action. What are you going to do with the answers you got? Did you get the information you needed in time to act on it? What questions still need to be asked so you can move forward?

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