Fast Company published an article on questions titled: How the Most Successful People Ask Questions that I found interesting and useful to consider. But while the article identified concepts that I agree with, their descriptions and examples were misleading.
I'm a big believer in questions. With questions, there are two sources of power: the question itself, and the way it’s asked. If you can focus on these two things then you are more likely to benefit from the power of questions and really tap into the collective knowledge of your team that already exists, and is waiting to be unleashed.
Fast Company’s article was a bit off-base with the following 4 concepts:
1. There are no stupid questions
There are stupid questions. The “stupidity” however is more often in the execution of the question.
A “stupid” question is introduced without mindfulness and thoughtfulness. They are questions that are annoying to the receiver because they indicate the questioner has not really been listening.
Asking useful questions means that the questioner needs to be thoughtful about what question to ask and how to ask it. For example, the question needs to include reference to what the speaker said, allowing the question to be taken in context. Further, it may be useful to preface the question to ensure it’s not merely taken as a challenge, saying for example, “This is all new to me. Would you go over that again, please? I really want to understand,” and, “I'm curious about what led you to that conclusion.”
2. Distinguish between learner and judger questions
Here’s where I agree with the concept, and not the examples. A learner question is one that is made from a place of genuine curiosity, without an assumption of knowing the answer or assuming there is only one right answer. “Judger” questions have preconceived judgement built in to their delivery.
In the Fast Company article, there were no questions that were truly “judger” questions. All the examples were just “learner” questions framed either positively or negatively. The quoted example of, “Why aren't we winning?” is a legitimate learner question if posed without judgment. A judger question sounds more like, “Why would you even think of doing it that way?” implying that the questioner already has the “right” answer in mind.
An example of moving a judger question into a useful learner question is reframing the phrase from, “What did you do to get us into this mess?” to something like “I’d like to understand this better before our reaching any conclusions. What do you think contributed to our getting into this situation?”
3. End every meeting with a question
Fast company suggests ending every meeting with “something like, ‘Okay, just to be sure I've got the important details…”, which in fact is a statement, not a question. This highlights the fact that the speaker is making a statement about the “important details.” That statement requires the follow-on question, “Did I understand that correctly and fully?” Which leads to an answer, another statement.
While confirming the action at the end of the meeting with at question along the lines of, “Does this make sense to everybody in the room?” is wise to help ensure a common understanding, my preference in really ending the meeting is having the group complete a three-minute “did well/do better” exercise, in which the chair of the meeting poses the question, “What did we do well at this meeting? And what might we do better at our next meeting?” The answers can be written on a flip chart or just shared orally. This allows the people in the meeting – whether that’s two or 20 – to continue to improve their meeting skills.
In that light, every meeting ends with a statement. Without it, it’s not an “end.”
4. Question storming
The purpose of “question storming” is to move people from focusing on the problem, to focusing on questions about the problem. The intent is ultimately to find better questions to ask that lead to better answers.
While I recognize this is a useful exercise, and it is one of many that can be used, question storming can be a highly frustrating way to do this for many participants. The real desired outcome is to enhance divergent thinking, allowing the individuals involved to explore areas they would not have thought of during normal conversation.
There are many tools that allow divergent thinking that are more enjoyable for meeting participants. For some great examples check out Divergent Tools: One-Page Quick Ref from Omnitools.com.
Questions are key, and only when used skillfully.
There is no doubt of the power in great questions. They allow you to build shared understanding and bring out the wealth of knowledge in the room. They can ensure that your meetings turn discussion to action taken with ownership, and produce results. To achieve this, the questions must be asked with skill and intention.
Learn what questions to pose in a business context in this brief article: The Art of Great Questions In Strategic Planning.
What great questions can you ask today?