Asking Questions About Asking Questions – Part 2

Our last blog on questions ( looked at some common deficiencies and pitfalls and left you with a question – how do you think that you could improve your questioning skills right now? This rather assumes two things – that you are aware of how effective your current questioning habits are, and that you want to improve your skills in this area.

Most of us are quite unaware of how we do what we do most of the time, unless and until we get some feedback (which is simply information to help us become aware) – a whole other blog subject. Even then “wanting” to do something about it – weighing up the cost of the effort involved against the perceived benefit of changing – is crucial to anything actually taking place that is different from what we are comfortable with (our existing, well formed habit).

We may not be that bad at eliciting answers from people, but could we be better for our sake and theirs? The answer is almost certainly yes. So here are a few tips…………

Good questions are usually short. “Why is that?”, “How does that work?”, “Why do you say that?”, “What would make that better”, “How can I help?”.

It is best to leave them like that actually and let the other person reply or as Susan Scott puts it in her excellent “Fierce” books, “let the silence do the heavy lifting”. So why don’t we do that?

  • It doesn’t seem like we are doing much or contributing much to the conversation – (this can be driven by how we feel about ourselves and our “need” to contribute)
  • It leaves a silence while the person thinks, which is awkward and so we fill it – (the awkwardness is only in our heads and this can be about how confident we are about our own questioning skills and the “need” to contribute as above)
  • In doing this, I don’t get to let the interviewee know that I have either done my homework, have knowledge or have some answers to suggest – (this can be driven by how we feel really about ourselves and our “need” to contribute, or look “clever”)

What is the pattern that is emerging here?

Good questions are about the other person. The key to really good questions is that they are not about the interviewer at all. If I am secure in my skills and feel confident in what I am doing, then I am happy to take a “back seat” in the conversation or process. You will know when you have asked a really good question, as you will notice the act of thinking taking place – watch for the eyes to move away from eye contact as the search engine kicks in. This is good; so give the person space to think and provide an answer – don’t rush them, fill in the space, make suggestions or anything else. Wait – the answer will come.

Very often when I ask questions, I don’t need or want to know the answer; it is about the person that I am asking knowing the answer, by getting them to think it through.

Good questions provide answers that lead to the next question. Very often the best (i.e. that stimulate the most thinking) questions are those two or three into a conversation flow. These go deeper than, “behaviour” to what drives or causes that “behaviour”, for example. “Why do you think that?”, “What makes that happen?”, “What causes you to feel that way?”, “What is really going on?” – these are just a few……….Listening to the answers – rather than worrying about what to say next – is crucial. The next question is very often birthed in the answer to the last.

Good questions demonstrate interest in the other person. In any leadership or management role, questions are a powerful to way to create a feeling of value in the individuals within the team/group. The questions must be genuine (if they are not “emotional leakage” will give you away) and you must be prepared to listen to the reply. The next question, if based on the response that you have just heard, demonstrates listening, interest, value, concern – all great things to help you in your wider role.

Good questions circumvent “stock” answers and superficiality. One of the most frustrating responses you can elicit at times is “I don’t know”. I am not speaking about factual questions – “What is the mass of the sun?” – as it is perfectly possible that people will not know the answer to that question (which is fine, as they can find out or look it up). I am talking about questions to do with themselves, like those two paragraphs above.

Very often this answer is provided because people can’t be bothered to think it through or do know but don’t really want to admit the answer (to themselves, more than anything else). A great question – try it – to use when people respond with “I don’t know”, is to ask “If you did know, what do you think the answer would be?”. This works well in almost all cases and I have been astonished at how deeply people will think about their reply often coming up with a very thoughtful answer, sometimes surprising themselves.

It is almost as if their brain really cannot resist searching for the answer to such a deep and probing question.

What makes a skilled questioner? There are probably more than listed here, but these would be a great start:-

  • Genuine interest in the other person (this is about your mental preparation!)
  • Short concise questions – keep it simple
  • Listening to the answer
  • Personally secure enough to leave aside their need to show knowledge
  • Clarify what isn’t clear (rather than assume)

And finally……

Why would you want to improve your questioning skills?
How will you set about improving your questioning skills?
Where will you begin?
What do you think will be the hardest aspect to conquer?
When will you start the improving process?
Who will give you feedback?