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questions

Asking Questions About Asking Questions

The ability to ask questions is a deceptively simple skill, and immensely powerful when executed correctly. Yet it remains a largely unused tool in both business and personal life. I never cease to be amazed at what asking a question will do; the impact is very obvious (more of this to follow) and, for the most part people are willing to answer with a degree of honesty and openness (more of this to follow, too).

So what is in a question? Stop for a moment before reading on and consider that question again. I am willing to wager that at some level the very posing of the question to you as you read began a thinking process. What can you find lurking back in the dark recesses of your memory banks that you might have learnt, read, heard or written about questions? Almost like a search engine, we are programmed to search for relevant information, rapidly honing and refining our search until we find something that might be an answer or at least help identify the answer.

What do questions do to us? Have you ever had one of those moments (of inspiration) where you have answered a question – maybe in a pub quiz or watching a TV quiz show – and have remarked to yourself, “How did I know that” or “I didn’t know I knew that”. It is quite probable that you have never required that dot of information previously, or forgotten exactly how it came to be lodged there at all; the questions triggers a trawl through the data-banks. It is almost like we can’t resist. We will think about the answer to a question – and in particular if it is personal – whether we want to or not. So, will questions always get you thinking?

Who are the best people at asking questions? I guess we might all agree that politicians are the best at answering questions – or rather not answering questions – but does that mean that those who jobs are interviewing politicians and other people are good at this skill. Sadly not, it seems. Here is an example of what not to do http://ow.ly/c2lIA, if you can stick with it! I will mention no names, but I have noticed several traits in “professional” interviewers – why not see if you can spot these traits too?

Firstly, there seems to be a desire to ask and then try to answer the question posed – the question may actually be a good one – by providing a range of possible answers, usually prefaced by “is it……..” An example might be “What is the biggest issue facing the NHS? Is it a lack of willingness to change, the ageing population, being over-managed, Government cuts, or the Euro crisis?” What this does is to limit the possible answers to the selection provided – possibly showing how clever the interviewer is, or not if the answer is something they have not listed. The basis for the question being posed in the first place, almost certainly, is that the person who will answer has some knowledge or understanding; so let them select their answer as they see fit. See how many uses of “is it…..” you can find; they are all over the place. Why do you think that might be the case?

Secondly, it seems there is a real “need” for the questioner to demonstrate their knowledge – that they have done their homework. Questions in this mode are long and very convoluted, and often hidden within the lengthy diatribe or tacked pitifully on the end. Usually, in a radio or TV interview time is short and the fact that a significant amount is taken up with the interviewer demonstrating “knowledge”, is a waste of precious time. Let the “expert” do their stuff. What might be the downside of letting the expert do their stuff?

Thirdly there are questions that start with either “presumably”, “obviously”, “naturally” or some other word of similar ilk. These words will be followed by some statement which is either presumably true, obviously true or naturally the case; another preamble to the real question. If the matter is obvious it does not need stating; if it is a presumption then there is no need to presume as the interviewee can, from their knowledge, put that beyond doubt. Ask them. Why might people use these words so freely and inappropriately?

Fourthly, not asking a question at all, but making a statement and leaving a pause for comment. “Tough night for England………….”. This appears to be the laziest form of interviewing; not even bothering to form a question at all! What is the worst thing that might happen in this situation? Why doesn’t that happen every time?

How might asking questions be abused? Since questions are so powerful, they can be used in the wrong way – here is a really good case in point http://ow.ly/c2mcn. This is a great clip to demonstrate how it is possible with well crafted questions (notice these are all closed, requiring only a yes or no answer) to manoeuvre and manipulate your “victim”. Whilst clever (and it happens) it leaves those being questioned feeling like they have been corralled into a place that they would rather not. This technique is part of “influencing” – commitment and consistency – getting someone to make a public statement (even answering a “loaded” question) makes it very difficult for them to later act in a way that is inconsistent with their earlier statement.

This type of questioning is essentially adversarial – as you might find in court – designed not with the other person in mind, but rather with the making of or achieving a stated point of view.

A step further is interrogation, designed to elicit withheld information or confirm statements already made. Here questions will be fired quickly and possibly by different people, but essentially the questions are unconnected to each other –” Where were you last night?”, “How long have you been married?” , “Who do you work for?”, “Where were you brought up?” What time did you come home last night?” This is designed to confuse and get the victim to answer quickly without thinking – likely to be the truth – and answering similar questions over again in the process to look for inconsistencies in the story.

I would suggest that these forms of questioning are inappropriate in most cases that we will face whether at work or at home……….

How do we develop our questioning skills? As with any tool the antidote to non-use or wrong use is correct use – learning to use the tool skilful and appropriately in any given situation. Our next blog on “questions” will pick up the reigns from here and provide some top tips to improve your skills. Whilst you wait for that to arrive – how do you think that you could improve your questioning skills right now?

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Improving Performance – Take a Meerkat Moment

We are currently coming to the close of a large delivery program for a company that is trying to instill new company values into the management team and beyond. Part of this new initiative is to try to focus less on the “whats” and more on the “hows”; something that many companies are trying to achieve and intellectually this makes sense.

We all know the old clichés, when discussing our people – you know the ones ‘our most valuable asset’, ‘a leader cannot succeed without a team to lead’, ‘there is no I in team (….add one of you own here..). Unfortunately it appears that a lot of the leaders we meet see their job as having two distinct elements; one, their team and two, their day job. With ever increasing, stretching targets there seems to be a focus on short term results rather than developing the team that we need to deliver them. So the day job takes over and team/individual development takes a back seat for now. We can always do that tomorrow, next week, next month….Unfortunately we might be busy now BUT when will we not be busy?

Case in point, on the current contract we are involved with, we talk about Adair’s action centred leadership and the group are asked to split themselves across the three elements (Task, Team, Individual) based on where they spend most of their time. In this case, around 90-95% of the managers said they spent the vast majority of their time in the task area. Admittedly as leaders we must make sure that we achieve the goals set but sometimes this focus keeps our heads down in the undergrowth and we miss the opportunity to seek out better ways – ways that would ensure that we do not only achieve our task but exceed it.When this is discussed in the training room, everyone ‘gets it’. All admit that there needs to be a different focus, and this is easy when you are in a training room when someone is giving you the time to sit and think. Many of these sessions allow our delegates to have “Meerkat” moments for themselves where they lift their heads up out of the undergrowth and can make decisions that are right for them, right for their people and right for the organisation.

Unfortunately in the real world it is up to YOU to give yourself the time to think, there isn’t a trainer setting up a syndicate exercise for you. If you want a “Meerkat” moment for yourself, you need to lift your head up out of the undergrowth and see what is happening. Then once you are aware, take the time to think more about ‘it’; not just the symptoms but also the root cause. At that point Kipling’s serving men come into their own, ask yourself; what, why, when, how where and who.

We have thought of some potential questions for you. We invite you to visit our website (www.appltd.co.uk) and ‘take the test’, to consider the potential for improving performance in your organisation. Obviously, only do it if you have time!