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How to ask questions

1. Quotable quote

"The higher you climb in your organisation, the more people will come to you with their questions, expecting answers. And the higher your level in the hierarchy, the fewer answers you should give, and the more questions you should ask… By bringing the views of different people to bear on a situation, you create the opportunity to reach new solutions. Only by asking questions can you bring a degree of confidence and trust sufficient to elicit these different, perhaps radical, points of view."

Anne Evans, Managing People, Australian Business Library, Melbourne, 1990, p. 67.

2. Here's an idea

All sorts of people, no matter how important they may be, get a pleasant lift when you ask them for their opinions or assistance. It is an indication that you value their views or judgement. So, don’t be reluctant to ask: ‘What do you think about this?’ ‘Have you ever had this kind of problem?’ ‘Will you help me with this?’ ‘What would you do in this situation?’ ‘What has been your experience in these matters?’

‘What is your opinion of these circumstances?’ - and so on.

Not only important people need their egos massaged occasionally. Don’t forget to seek advice from those at your level or below. You may be surprised at how much help they can give, and how much some of them know.

3. Viewpoint

"When you are managing people, one of the greatest timesavers is asking questions - more specifically, asking the right questions. In behavioural psychology we learn that everything is a result of something else. And when a problem arises, it is usually a clue that a deeper problem lies beneath the surface. The best way to get to the bottom of things is not to jump to conclusions but to ask questions."

Jim Rohn in Seven Strategies for Wealth and Happiness.

4. Here's an idea

Questioning, writes Allan Pease in 'Talk Language', can be the lifeblood of a good conversation - if the questions are asked effectively. But, in questioning, we often make mistakes - for example:

  • Asking questions that are too open-ended. Very open-ended questions require so much effort and time to answer properly that most people give up without even trying. e.g. ‘What have you been up to lately?’ and ‘What’s new?’
  • Beginning with difficult questions. Always start with simple questions about topics which others are likely to be interested in or familiar with.
  • Asking leading questions. Such closed questions only invite agreement on your personal opinion. e.g. ‘You don’t want the last cake, do you?’ or ‘It’s 8.30. Shouldn’t we stay home tonight?’

5. Dual perspective, please

Always strive to maintain dual perspective when asking questions, says Allan Pease in 'Talk Language'. "Having dual perspective means thinking not just in terms of what you want to say and hear, but also in terms of the other person's interest. The worst bores of all are oblivious to the wants and needs of others. They are best epitomised by a distinguished-looking gentleman saying to a woman at a cocktail party. 'Enough of all this talking about me. Let's talk about you. What do you think of me so far?"

6. The one question

Anthony de Mello, S.J. in 'The Prayer of the Frog' tells the story of a scientist who spent ten years researching the possibility of transforming water into petroleum. He was convinced that all he needed was one substance to effect the needed transformation but, try as he might, the formula eluded him.

One day he learnt that, high up in the mountains of Tibet, there lived a Lama who was all-knowing and could reveal to him the formula he sought.

There were three conditions, however: he had to travel there alone, and the journey was hazardous; he had to travel on foot, and the journey was arduous; and, if he ever made it to the presence of the Lama, he would be allowed to ask one, and only one, question.

It took him many months of hardship and danger to fulfil the first two requirements.

When he was finally brought into the presence of the Lama, imagine his shock to find, not a wizened, bearded old man he expected but an attractive young woman, lovelier far than anything he could have imagined.

She smiled at him sweetly and, in a voice that to his ear sounded heavenly, she said, 'Congratulations, traveller! You have made it to our mountain fortress. Now what is your question?'

To his own great surprise the scientist said, 'Ma'am, are you married?'

Always keep your questions simple and direct.

7. The master questioner

Socrates, 'the gadfly of Athens', was one of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known. He did something that only a handful of men in all history have been able to do: he sharply changed the whole course of human thought; and now, twenty-four centuries after his death, he is honoured as one of the wisest persuaders who ever influenced this wrangling world.

His method? Did he tell people they were wrong? Oh, no, not Socrates. He was far too adroit for that. His whole technique, now called the 'Socratic method', was based upon getting a 'yes, yes' response. He asked questions with which his opponent would have to agree. He kept on winning one admission after another until he had an armful of yeses. He kept on asking questions until finally, almost without realising it, his opponents found themselves embracing a conclusion they would have bitterly denied a few minutes previously.

The next time we are tempted to tell someone he or she is wrong, let's remember old Socrates and ask a gentle question - a question that will get the 'yes, yes' response.

Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People.

8. Never stop questioning

A stranger from up north was fishing from a rickety pier at the edge of a small lake in the Florida Everglades. The sun was hot, the air soggy, and only a few fish were showing any interest in his bait.

After a few steamy hours of this, he began speculating about reeling in his line and taking a quick swim before heading back to his lodgings.

He'd been warned to be aware of poisonous snakes in this area and, of a boy passing down the road beside him, he asked: 'Sonny, are there any snakes in this lake?'

'No, sir,' the boy assured him. 'Not a one.'

With this assurance, the man stripped off his outer clothes and dipped into the cooling water. As he splashed around a bit, he noticed movement in the thick reeds nearby.

'Hey, kid,' he said, 'are you positive there aren't any snakes in her? I heard this was moccasin country. Ever seen any in this lake?'

'Nope,' replied the boy.

The reeds stirred once more, this time more vigorously. Uneasily, the man persisted: 'How come there aren't any snakes here?'

'Alligators ate 'em all,' the boy explained.

Skilful use of questions is a vital ingredient in communication. Without it, you can be in deep trouble. The fisherman made a common mistake. He asked the wrong questions and received misleading answers. Fortunately he persisted and eventually learned what he needed to know.

Albert Einstein had isolated an important secret for success in any endeavour, when he admitted: 'The important thing is never to stop questioning.'