Understand the Importance of Asking Questions
A few years ago, I was out to dinner with a girl I was dating. She was talking about one of her work colleagues. I asked, “who’s that?” It led to an angry outburst about how I never asked her about her life and that I didn’t know her at all. I understood a few years later that maybe it was because I didn’t ask enough questions.
Like with active listening, we all think we’re good at asking questions, but it’s often not the case. You rarely meet a person who has prepared their questions and fully let you guide the conversation.
Why do I need to learn how to ask the right questions?
Asking questions shows that you are interested in the other person and what they’re saying. By asking questions, like with active listening, you learn more about the other person and the way they see the world.
Formulate Appropriate Questions
Many people feel that it’s best to ask as many questions as possible and not just relevant ones. This notion seems to come from a misconstrued Albert Einstein quote, “there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.”
Expressions like this are good in that they encourage people to ask questions, but they also have a flaw: they don’t make you think about whether your question is valid or not. So I’ll be brave and go against the grain, saying that there are good questions, but there are also some bad ones.
So what makes a question a good question?
I believe that a good question is one where you’ve thought about the objective (so you know why you’re asking it). This means preparing your questions in advance. Try using this 4-step formula:
Write down all the questions that come to mind about the project and the person you’re meeting (based on what you want to learn about them).
Sort your questions into categories: questions about the company, the person, the project, etc.
List the categories in order of importance for your meeting while bearing in mind the time.
Refine the list: delete any redundant questions and make sure to formulate each question carefully based on its objective.
In the article mentioned above, the authors quoted Dale Carnegie and his famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie gives a rather elegant piece of advice:
“Be a good listener. Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.”
You may not agree with this quote because it’s not always pleasant to answer the best questions, but Dale Carnegie encourages us to think about how we formulate our questions. Let's explore this idea further.
Formulate Questions Carrefully
Did you like dinosaurs as a kid? I loved them! The dinosaur world fascinated me even though I could barely get through Jurassic Park 2 (T-Rex was way too scary). Well, asking questions is a bit like a paleontologist looking for dinosaur bones in a large valley (a “bit,” I said). Your questions are the tools you use to uncover information, so you better choose the right ones!
Closed questions often start with a verb and are questions to which you can probably predict the answer, like:
What do you prefer: coffee or hot chocolate?
Do you want to grab a salad with us?
There are several different types of closed questions, each with their own objectives:
Such questions allow you to check that you’re on the same wavelength as the other person.
For example: “Do we agree on this point?”
These questions help you to evaluate a level of intensity.
For example: “On a scale of 1-10, how would you evaluate the quality of this discussion?” (if you’re working in after-sales)
Like with involvement questions, commitment questions allow you to catapult the other person into the future to help them make their decision.
For example: “OK, so if we agree on this, then when should we get started?”
This type of question always starts with a question word (how, when, who, what, where, why, etc.); they help you find out more, direct the conservation, or get further details.
Let’s look a little closer at open questions.
If you, the paleontologist, find a bone in a particular spot in the valley, you're not going to drive 200 miles away from there to look for another one; you'll dig all around the first bone to look for more. That is what this category of question is all about.
This type of question often starts with "why," "for what reasons," or "what about this" (be careful not to overuse "why" as it may make people feel like you're asking them to justify their actions).
For example: "For what reasons is this important to you?"
Exploratory Questions/Questions to Define the Context
With these questions, you’re seeking out information.
For example: “What are your priorities today? What motivates you the most about this project?”
You’re looking to define a piece of information that you’ve just been given.
For example: “How many people were affected by this technical issue?”
Such questions allow you to take the other person with you on a journey to the future.
For example: “Once this issue is solved, how should we proceed? What are the next steps?”
Over to You Now!
Choose a meeting you have scheduled - with your boss, a colleague, or a client - and prepare your questions using as many different types as possible.
Asking questions is a good thing, but asking relevant questions is better.
Choose your questions according to your objectives.
Carefully formulate your questions.
You’ve reached the end of the first part! Congratulations! You have gone through the fundamentals of communication: preparing well, listening well, and asking the right questions.
In the next part, you will look at how to adapt these skills and stances to different clients. But before moving on to that, I’d like you to test your knowledge by taking our quiz.