Ask Better Questions

Every year on August 2nd i call my father after i get home from work and wish him a happy birthday. We have a chat about his day, what he got up to, and then inevitably at some point in the conversation he says with a sense of ironic boyish enthusiasm, “Saul, i love getting older –  I just really enjoy the process of growing, learning, getting older and wiser – i cant wait till i’m 90 – imagine how much more i’ll know about life then!”

I distinctly remember my reactions to comments like this when i was in my early 20’s – particularly when he started to talk about ones ‘coolness’ being proportional to their age…. “whatever old man”. Well, i’m pleased to say that with my 20’s well behind me, these days i find myself not only agreeing with him, but feeling equally enthused about notching up another year on this earth. No, its not because i have some strange masochistic attachment to the feeling of my knees deteriorating, my bung shoulder giving me more grief than it did last year, or my metabolism going on permanent strike. No, I’m prepared to suffer through all of those unfortunate side effects so that i can be the beneficiary of that wonderful thing that only time can gift – experience, and (hopefully) wisdom.

Whilst time has gifted me many wonderful experiences and lessons, one that has had a profound affect on my personal and professional development has been learning the importance of asking better questions.

As a young business professional i can recall sitting around a board room table with the directors of the company i worked for discussing strategy or monthly results, and intently observing behaviours of the various parties in attendance. I won’t go into detail about the other characters around the table, but there is one that frustrated, fascinated and impressed me all at the same time… ‘the better question asker’. (If you’re into corporate personality profiling this brief article is an interesting read)

The ‘better question asker’ was largely silent (the frustrating part for the young & enthusiastic operations guy who was all over the operational detail of the business and wanted to ‘fix’ everything). He would listen intently, actively solicit opinions from the room, and would seldom offer an opinion of his own. (Again, a major source of frustration… ‘is this guy just thieving all of my good ideas or what’?). However, when he did choose to exert his influence on the meeting it was more often that not in the form of a question rather than a statement or opinion. And not just any question… a better question.

A ‘better question’ is a benevolent question. It is not asked to solely satisfy the needs of the asker – it is asked for the betterment of all of those who are fortunate to hear it (including the asker). A better question is empowering, not demeaning, it is thought provocative, not just plain provocative, it is challenging, but not belittling. A better question is designed to elighten – to encourage us to develop our own ideas & opinions, to prompt analysis and critical thinking, to create clarity where there was confusion, or to develop a deeper understanding and empathy. A better question is the key management tool of some of the wisest people i know – and for whom i have the most respect.

In Business:

  • The most profound insights come from the best questions.
  • The greatest solutions come from asking better questions about the problem. (without better questions, all too often the wrong problem gets ‘solved’ because no-one sought to clarify the issue in the 1st place!)
  • The best innovations and inventions come from better questions about the relevance of the current paradigm.
  • Unbelievable efficiencies and productivity gains are brought about by asking a simple ‘better question’ – “Why do we do it like that” (you’ll be surprised how often the answer is ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’)
  • A successful team is united by a common goal which stems from a better question – ‘Why do we do what we do’?
  • Employees are empowered by their superior’s use of better questions. (Do you have any thoughts on how we could improve client engagement? As opposed to: “Why is our client enagament so bad?”)
  • The best data analysis and business intelligence comes from asking the right questions of the data set (otherwise its just reporting)
  • Clients are understood, serviced, and satisfied more successfully through the use of better questions.

In Investing:

In investing the better questions will be the ones you need to ask yourself…

  • Is my analysis sound or is it just confirmation bias?
  • Is this really undervalued or is there something i’m not seeing here?
  • Am i really the best person to be managing my investments?
  • What is my goal, how will i get there, and how will i know if i’m on the right track?
  • Should i really be buying right now, or is it just FOMO?

In Life:

  • Want a deeper level of understanding of your partner? – ask a better question. Better yet – ask a whole bunch of them!
  • Children are engaged and learn more creatively & effectively through the use of better questions.
  • Spend more time listening, learning & understanding instead of speaking – “You have two ears and one mouth – use them in that proportion”.

An opportunity to ask better questions will come up every day – you won’t even have to go looking for one. All you need to do is train yourself out of your default response. When your direct report comes into your office and says ‘i have a problem, what should i do?’ stop for a moment before issuing your default response (solving their issue immediately so you can get back to your work). Take a moment longer, think longer term, ask a better question or two and see the difference it can make. You just might find that that extra moment of your time has a bigger impact on your employee’s development, their feeling toward you, your future time, and the value you both create for the organisation.

When a customer comes to you with a complaint….
When you’re chairing your next meeting….
When you’re trying to solve a problem….
When you’re wondering what to do with your life…

Opportunities are everywhere.

Smart Questions v’s Better Questions:

Now before you go firing off questions willy nilly consider that a question has two parts: 1. What is the question asking? And 2. How is it being asked?

Its entirely possible to ask a very intelligent question in the completely wrong way. This unfortunate combination undermines your credibility, ruins your rapport with the person you’re asking, and blows any chance of your question achieving its purpose. This is the difference between a smart question, and a better question. If you truly want to opt for the latter, consider these 6 things:

  1.  Are your questions benevolent – are they intended to help someone other than yourself (The person you’re asking? The company you work for).
  2. Do they empower the person to whom they are being asked – are they open questions that allow the person to think liberally, critically and enencumbered by your opinion?
  3. Are they intended to foster a better understanding? – do both parties walk away with something from the question?
  4. Do they create inclusiveness? – Does the party on the receiving end of the question feel like they are contributing to something? (Your understanding? A solution? A mutually beneficial outcome?)… or is it just The Spanish Inquisition?
  5. Are you framing up your question in a way that will ellicit the best response from its recipient? – If you’re not, you may as well not ask.
  6. Are you prepared to listen to the response openly, without influencing or interupting? – If you’re not than you need to consider why you’ve asked the question in the first place.

So if you’re ready to start absorbing more knowledge, gaining better understanding, making a bigger impact on other peoples lives, making more informed decisions, and creating more value for your organisation, i think you know what you need to do…..start asking better questions. All the best!