Why, you might wonder, is it important in business to ask good questions? Here’s why. If you don’t, you won’t be able to understand a client’s needs, an employee’s difficulties, or a boss’s demands. Asking good questions also gets people to open their minds and think more creatively.
You might remember teachers who asked a lot of questions, mostly irrelevant, wandering off topic, never able to get to the essence of the lesson. At the end of the class very little progress was made, and you were left wondering what you had learned that day.
A while back, a well-respected businesswoman who was a mentor of mine shared the following advice — if you want to be successful in business, you have to be like a skilled teacher who is able to ask the right questions. I also learned from her that, although asking good questions might seem really easy, it isn’t. It can take several years of practice before you are good at asking the right questions.
Asking good questions is not an abstract idea though. There are concrete steps you can take to hone your skill. The helpful thing is, most people like to talk about themselves and the work they do. So if you learn how to ask good questions, you’ll find that you are able to gain critical insights that are key to doing business.
The Language Lab’s Guide to Asking Good Questions
1. Focus: Decide in advance what you hope to achieve with your questions. Focusing will help you eliminate unnecessary questions.
2. Prepare: Write out the questions you want to ask, in advance. Make sure every question relates to the idea/topic on which you are focusing. Put these questions in a logical sequence. Even if you end up deviating at times from your question list, it will give you a road map to follow.
3. Practice: Rehearse by saying the questions out loud, to yourself. You’ll find that in the actual interview situation you will barely have to refer to your notes.
4. Ask open-ended questions: Avoid questions that can be answered by “yes” or “no.” To do this, ask questions beginning with the “five Ws”: Who, what, when, where, why (and one “H,” how). For example, instead of asking, “Do you feel the project was a success?” ask, “What is it about the project that worked?”
5. Be direct: Ask only one question at a time. Otherwise, you run the risk of causing confusion or getting a partial response. For example, instead of asking, “Why was the project a success and what didn’t work and how do you think you will apply the lessons you learned to future projects?” ask, “Why was the project a success?” “What didn’t work?” “How do you think you will apply the lessons you learned to future projects?”
6. Ask empowering questions: As I said earlier, most people like to talk about themselves and the work that they do. So ask questions that allow them to reflect on their own experience and share it with you. For example, “Based on your experience, what are your recommendations?”
7. Ask for clarification: If you don’t understand a response, ask a follow up probing question. For example, “Can you tell me more about that?”
There is one other point I want to make about asking good questions that isn’t about the kind of questions you ask. In fact, it’s not about speaking at all, just the opposite — it’s about listening. Being a good listener means that you will be able to ask questions that deviate from your plan, when needed. Besides, people open up to good listeners. And when they open up, they give you all the answers you want — and more.
What are your tips for asking good questions? Contact me, Sandra Folk, at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know.