Asking good questions is one of the most overlooked skills in business today, and the value of a great question is rarely considered. We have so much information at our fingertips that, in many cases, we assume we know the answers – even before we’ve considered the questions. Good questions are essential to understanding others and the key to successful client management, selling skills and employee engagement.
Sometimes, we ask questions simply to start a conversation. We ask the questions we are used to asking, the “logical” questions that are typical and expected. In many cases, we ask the questions that check our own knowledge – that is, the things we already know. Think for a moment about what this type of question does, or does not do, for our relationships, especially in business development, sales or with our employees. Sometimes, it makes them feel important, that their opinions matter. Sometimes, it just make them look at their watch.
To ask better questions, first, we have to really look at things from a different perspective. It isn’t, “What do I need to know?” as much as, “What do I not know, and how will this interaction be better from my question?” Good questions are worded in a way that causes the other person to start talking – not just answering, but sharing in a meaningful way that puts us in a new place together.
We then have to understand what is not in a good question. Asking good questions requires an understanding of the unknown, being comfortable with it and then verbalizing it. When we are comfortable with not knowing something, we ask curious questions. This comfort enables us to stay away from questions that put growth-oriented conversations into a stall and cause innovation to stop. Stay away from the temptation to ask questions that are wordy, are filled with jargon or have a hidden motive wrapped up in them. (“So, did you come to the car lot to buy a car?”)
Good questions stay away from the obvious answer. They challenge the status quo. Sometimes, they are uncomfortable. It is important to keep the intention of the question in mind. The intention, especially when stated clearly, will keep discomfort at bay. Genuine curiosity will move people to a new place, and they will look at that new place with a sense of discovery, not friction. Be clear in your lack of knowledge, and be sincere in your desire to understand or learn about the other person and his or her needs or goals. Use language that provokes thought, imagery and true contemplation. If the other person says, “That’s a good question,” it may be a good question, because he or she has heard it or thought of it before. However, if the person says, “You know, I never thought about that before,” you are now in a new place – a place of innovative thought and growth mindset.
“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” (Dr. Stephen Covey).
It’s time to ask a question. Before you do, think about how to phrase it. Write down ideas. Think about what it is you want or need to know and what you do not know. Once you make that differentiation, you will form better questions that drive a more productive conversation, uncovering ideas and needs rather than comparing knowledge. You will know when you have written a good question when you read it and can envision the other person thinking about it and then answering with sentences, not a nod or a word or two.
Then, ask for more: “What do you mean?” or, “Tell me more about that.” These two phrases can carry on a conversation longer than one question can, with an added bonus: Not only can you keep the other person talking while you are learning more, but asking for more gives you time to think, organize your thoughts, and form a response that is well thought-out and genuine.
Finally, the last part of a good question: silence. Ask the question, and let the other person talk. Learn to be comfortable with that silence, that time it takes someone to answer a question.
Good questions are an important part of training and can help in all areas of your life. Try them at home as well as at work. You’ll be amazed at how much you didn’t know you wanted to know.