QUESTIONS ARE THE
Improve performance by asking better questions
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
In a world where we’re all drowning in information, sharing data may be useful, but the real power lies in the ability to ask the right questions. Questions can shift people’s thinking, inspire innovation, and result in significant change. Many of the innovations of the 20th and 21st centuries can be traced back to a single question.
The inspiration for Edwin Land’s instant developing camera came from his three-year-old daughter. While he was taking her picture one day, the little girl turned to him and innocently asked, “Why do we have to wait so long to see the picture?” That one simple question spawned a $1.4 billion global business.
Tesla was inspired by Elon Musk’s question, “How can we use fewer fossil fuels?” Steve Jobs’ question, “How do we put a computer in the hands of everyday people?” was the genesis for Apple. Companies like Netflix, Airbnb and Square were born because a courageous individual looked at a current problem and asked a naive question about why that problem existed and how it might be tackled.
Questions do more than spawn innovation; they reduce business risks by surfacing unforeseen pitfalls and hazards. When people ask questions, knowledge, ideas and perspectives are shared. As a result, new considerations come to light that lead to smarter business decisions.
Questions build connection. When people reciprocate and ask questions of each other, it helps create rapport and strengthen relationships. When questions are asked with open curiosity and without judgment, people feel valued and respected. The more questions we ask, the better we get at interpersonal skills and, interestingly, the more likable we become.
A large-scale research study … showed a strong correlation between the number of questions sales professionals asked and the number of meetings they secured and deals they closed.
A study conducted by Harvard Business School scrutinized the conversations of thousands of people who were getting to know one another in either online chat or in-person speed dates. The researchers told half of the participants to ask at least nine questions in 15 minutes and the other half to ask no more than four questions in 15 minutes. The people who asked more questions were consistently liked better by their conversation partners.
Organizations that encourage questions create positive work environments. When people feel safe to ask questions, it builds rapport, trust and transparency. Asking questions leads to a meaningful dialogue that gets people involved. Questioning enables people to learn from one another, gain clarity about expectations and understand the “why” behind the work they’re being asked to do.
If questions are so powerful, why don’t people ask more?
Young children are filled with curiosity; they’re not afraid to ask anyone anything. According to Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., one of the foremost researchers on curiosity, “A typical four-year-old asks 300 questions a day, but by middle school the number is down to practically zero.” We quickly learn the lesson in life that knowing the right answer is valued more than asking a good question. As adults, we ask fewer questions because:
- We don’t want to appear foolish. As leaders, we are predisposed to think it’s our job to have the answers. Asking a question says we don’t know the answer. We worry that people may perceive the question as dumb or irrelevant or that we may be viewed as incompetent.
- We like to hear ourselves talk. As humans, we have a natural tendency to say something rather than ask something. We like to impress people with our stories, experiences and what we know.
- We avoid confrontation. We’re conditioned to avoid questions that may be viewed as uncomfortable or challenging. Questioning the status quo or organizational decisions can lead to being sidelined or isolated.
- We think we know the answers. People are often overconfident about their own knowledge and think their perspective is the only one.
- We are impatient and not always interested in what others have to say. Questions take time. In our fast-paced business environment, people feel pressured to make fast decisions and “get on with it.”
- We lack training in questioning skills. If you were a physician, litigator, journalist or therapist, your professional education would include training in the importance of questions and how to use them to achieve your objectives. Few leaders get training in the importance of questioning and how to ask questions in an optimal way.
Capitalizing on the power of questions
Questions come easily to naturally curious people, but for others it’s a skill that needs to be learned and sharpened over time. Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort when you consider the positive impact questions can have on performance. Take sales as an example.
A large-scale research study conducted by tech company Gong.io analyzed 500,000 business-to-business sales conversations. Study findings showed a strong correlation between the number of questions sales professionals asked and the number of meetings they secured and deals they closed.
The best performers asked 11 to 14 questions. When asked more than 14 questions, buyers tuned out. When sales professionals asked fewer questions, they failed to gather enough helpful information.
There was also a correlation between how top sales performers sequenced questions and the tone with which they asked them. Top performers used a casual tone and scattered their questions throughout the conversation. However, the poorest performers front-loaded their questions in the first half of the conversation and sounded like they were reviewing a checklist.
Enhancing your skills begins with a commitment to ask more questions, whether you’re an employee speaking up at a company town hall or a CEO who wants to understand what motivates a direct report.
Improve your skills by keeping the following in mind:
- Understand what you’re asking and why. Are you looking for data, trying to confirm information, gaining insight into how someone thinks or trying to build rapport? The clearer you are about what you want, the better job you will do in crafting questions that get you a meaningful response. No one wants to feel interrogated, so choose your questions carefully and maintain a casual conversational tone.
- Don’t hijack the conversation. Have you ever noticed how people ask you a question, partially listen to your answer and then rush in to tell you their experience or opinion? Say you’re talking to a client about your recent vacation. She asks you where you went. When you say “Italy,” she launches into a story about her last trip to Italy instead of asking a follow-up question like, “What was your favorite part of the country?” Follow-up questions make people feel heard and respected. All too often, people have parallel conversations. People are talking about the same subject but not talking to each other. The opportunity to learn and connect is missed.
- Be a better listener. The more care-fully you listen, the more you will learn and the better your follow-up questions will be. The reality is, we’re frequently half listening. We’re busy planning what to say next or letting our minds wander. People sense you’re not giving them your full attention and will hesitate to be open with you. You also miss critical parts of the conversation or the deeper meaning behind what someone is saying.
- Know the type of questions to ask. Open-ended questions like “tell me more,” “can you explain what you mean?” or “how does that work in your organization?” can elicit more thoughtful, thorough responses that help you gain the clarity you need. Open-ended questions also show you’re interested in learning rather than signaling you know what the other person feels or needs. They’re also helpful in surfacing new opportunities and perspectives.
- Closed-end questions. These limit possible answers and are often the better choice when you need to con-firm information or are talking with someone who does not want to be open. Open-ended questions leave too much wiggle room to lie or lie by omission.
- Keep questions short. Avoid bundling multiple questions into one. For example, “Why did you start this organization, what inspired you, and where do you see yourself in five years?” People will become confused and likely answer only one of your questions. Instead, stick to one simple question at a time.
- Pay attention to the sequence. If your goal is building rapport, start with casual questions and work up to more probing ones. Conversely, if you’re in a tense situation and need sensitive information, begin with a tough question that you don’t need the answer to and then go to slightly softer questions. Research shows that people are more willing to reveal sensitive information when asked questions in decreasing order of intrusiveness.
- Don’t be afraid to ask a naive question. Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell has built a career on asking the obvious questions that people tend to avoid to protect the status quo. Confident in his intelligence, he never hesitates to say, “I don’t understand; could you please explain that?” Those seemingly naive questions that shine a light on complex issues with no easy answers are catalysts for change.
Peter Drucker, one of the most widely known and influential thinkers on management, said that our most important and difficult job is not to find the right answers but to find the right questions, for “there are few things as useless, if not dangerous, as the right answer to the wrong question.”
Whether you’re leading a team, looking for ways to grow professionally, or trying to advance your career, the ability to ask the right questions, in the right way is a “power skill,” that’s vital to success.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.