In a recent note we introduced the importance of questions as a tool for improving ourselves and our organizations. We highlighted a number of areas where good questions can help us make positive progress. We hope, in this note, to outline what constitutes good questions as well as offer some suggestions for how we can cultivate curiosity in our companies. James E. Ryan writes in Wait, What? That “The simple truth is that an answer can only be as good as the question asked. If you ask the wrong question, you are going to get the wrong answer.” Is the folk wisdom that suggests there’s no such thing as a bad, stupid, or wrong question accurate? As powerful as the value of questions can be, not all questions are created equal. There are plenty of questions that can be destructive. Unlike what we may have been told in school, there is such a thing as a bad question. Do you know any people that cling to the cloak of a devil’s advocate in almost all interactions? There seem to be some that are happy to criticize or question any approach all of the time. This doesn’t seem terribly productive. Are they much fun to be around? How is this approach for team morale? Developing skills at questioning involves learning both what kinds of questions to ask as well as how. What can we do to learn to recognize the difference between good questions that build and others that shut down conversations?
The first question to ask is what do I want my question to achieve? Good questions are purposeful. They serve. They help. Broad, vague questions create confusion. Consider the typical question opening job interviews where the candidate is asked, “So, who is ______insert candidate name______?” How is the candidate supposed to respond? Do they offer a chronological look at their life? “Well, I was born two score and eleven years ago in a small village in the UK.” Or should they respond about their current hobbies? A candidate is best offering a question to the question as their response. For example, “What part of my background interests you?” or, “What if I describe some examples of work I’ve done for businesses similar to you in the past, would that be helpful?”
Michael Marquardt in Leading With Questions breaks down questions into two groups. Those that empower and those that disempower. Disempowering questions breed defensiveness and seek to assign blame. They include questions like, don’t you know any better, why are you behind schedule, or who is the problem here. None of these are fun to be asked. None of these breeds a search for common ground or improvement. Empowering questions seek to serve and expand the conversation. They aim to kickstart reflection and focus on the desired outcome. Empowering questions challenge and stretch our perspective. They lead to breakthrough thinking and contribution. They generate constructive action. Empowering questions include how would you describe the present reality, what are some options for improvement, can you describe your concerns, what are some possible alternatives to consider?
It’s not just the questions we ask, but how we ask them that can impact the conversation. Marquardt writes, “The attitude, mindset, pace, timing, environment, and context can all affect the impact of our questions.” Marquardt offers two mindsets that can impact our approach to asking questions. We typically fall into either a judging or learning camp. Judging results from reacting to circumstances with the primary purpose of assigning blame. Those that tend to judge believe they know the answers. They direct instead of inquiring. They see their perspective and are less nuanced in understanding context. The judgers are more likely to ask disempowering questions whereas those with a learner’s mindset lean to empowering questions. Learning is about trying to improve, get better, and teach. Learners appreciate flexibility and recognize they don’t know everything. They are curious and believe others add value and can help. They see possibility. A learning mindset is recommended. When trouble shooting, finding out what happened and why is more important than who.
Before you ask a question try to see it from the perspective of the person you will be asking. Is it likely to come across as accusatory? Will they be put on the defense with the question? Is it a genuine expression of inquiry? Marquardt suggests that we consider our question through the lens of questions asking, why do I need this information, what is it that I need to know, and what will I do with the answer? If you’re not sure how the proposed question may be taken, express this uncertainty to the recipient prior to posing the question. Another way to help your question be heard is to couch it in the context that you value the person’s perspective, experience, and insights and this is why you’re asking questions.
Once a question is asked, it’s important to listen. After asking, sit with any silence. The silence communicates that you are giving the other person time to think… Express gratitude for responses provided. Marquardt quotes leadership legend, Frances Hesselbein, “We need leaders who practice the art of listening, practice Peter Drucker’s ‘think first, speak last.’ Leaders who are healers and unifiers use listening to include, not exclude—building consensus, appreciating differences, finding common concepts, common language, common ground.”
To embed a sense of inquiry and commit to questions as part of your group’s culture, Marquardt suggests several steps. First and foremost, lead by example. Those at the top of the organization have to both communicate the importance of curiosity coupled with asking better questions. Others must be encouraged to act similarly, and the benefits of questions should be communicated constantly within the company. The goal of good questions helps all of us and the business to improve by challenging the status quo. Leaders can then look to link questions determining the values the organization holds dear. Is loyalty a core value of the company? If so, questioning may be seen as the opposite of expressing loyalty. Questions instead should be seen as an effort to better understand who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish. Our goal with questions is to point ourselves in the desired direction.
Extending the embrace is done by ensuring questions are used in various activities. For example, there can be questions that start meetings and end meetings. For example, why are we meeting together today? “What decisions do we need to make today?” “What’s the most important thing we should be discussing today?” Consider questions like these at the onset of a meeting. At the end ask, “What have we decided today?” “Is there a decision that I have to make or that I can help you make?” “What is needed in order for a decision to be made on this?” “Do we all agree about that?” Moreover, the method for which input is sought from others within a meeting can become driven by questions. After a session where questions have been asked and answered, you can build your credibility as a person who doesn’t just ask, but hears and acts, by following up.
Questions can be built into workflows For example, a sales process can be built entirely around questions. In fact, Sobel and Panas offer four questions for sales. First, we’re trying to evaluate if there is a need for our service. Does the prospect have a problem we can solve? If so, we move on to identifying if the person we’re engaged with is empowered to make a decision. Does the buyer own this problem? If we get past this hurdle, the third question is about the urgency of the issue. Is the pain deep enough that action is imminent? Does the buyer have a healthy dissatisfaction with their current state? If the pain is mild to none, little incentive exists for action, the status quo will win out. A willingness to change follows substantial pain with the present. Finally, the seller must overcome the trust question from a prospect. Does the buyer trust that you are the solution to the problem? Each sales encounter is somewhere along this four-step process. Questions serve as cues around which to construct a conversation. As questions become a bigger part of your workflows, ensure they are included as part of your training as well. Finally, recognize and reward those that evidence good questioning skills. Are people making time for reflection? Is it “quieter” within the office? Are people discussing finding more time for thought?
A culture of curiosity is one where questions are not just invited, but even expected. Where questions aren’t welcome, the status quo sticks around. Cultivating curiosity is the counterpoint to complacency. Those that question things find efficiencies and innovations. From curiosity follows an openness to change and a desire to improve. The curious ask both “why?” and “why not?” Why is a question about ensuring we’re doing things for a reason. Is what we’re doing still serving? Why not is a question about possibility. Why not is the world of innovation. Andres Sobel and Jerold Panas write in their book Power Questions, “Good questions challenge your thinking. They reframe and redefine the problem. They throw cold water on our most dearly held assumptions and force us out of our traditional thinking. They motivate us to learn and discover more. They remind us of what is most important in our lives.” Several thousand years ago, Socrates, through questions, inspired what has become known as The Socratic Method. His approach was to simply ask questions. He didn’t provide answers or dictate direction, he asked question after question until those that were listening to the questions stumbled across the answers themselves. His approach can be considered foundational to the development of Western civilization. When Socrates suggested, “The highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others,” he demonstrated the value of questioning for him.
Questions are about paying attention and being awake. They create our consciousness. We learn to see ourselves, others, our circumstances, and opportunities through questions. In A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger writes, “Don’t just teach your children to read. Teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.” Questions can be one of the most powerful leadership tools we have as parents and managers. We can all get better at asking questions in our work worlds. Questions help us capture context and navigate our way through nuance by clearing clutter. At the end of the day, we would do well to consider the words of Pierre Marc Gaston, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” As you continue to build your belief about the importance of questions, look for opportunities to see asking as a strength over knowing the answers. Heighten the humility to allow your curiosity to grow. Encourage others to ask questions. Develop a list of questions you are prepared to use.
For example, Shane Parrish of the blog Farnam Street offers what he considers “Big Life Questions” which he introduces in a course on decision making. These questions are something we should be asking ourselves early and often in our lives.
Where do I want to be in 5 or 10 years?
Where do I want to invest in order to reach my goals?
How will I care for my parents as they age?
What is the legacy work that I want to leave behind?
Do you have a list of favorite questions you consider regularly?