“Focus more on learning than on succeeding. Instead of pretending that you understand something when you don’t, just raise your hand and ask a question.” Michelle Obama
Many of us shy away from asking questions, despite how invaluable they can be in clarifying and creating understanding.
We worry that we’ll ask the wrong question and be perceived as incompetent. Or we believe we already know the answer—whether it is right or wrong.
We've all been there: wanting to ask a question but are hesitant because we don't want to appear as if we don't understand. But that's why you should ask. If you have a question, more than likely, someone else has the same one.
Imagine the salesperson who's been invited to a Zoom meeting with the product engineering team to talk about a potential new product.
After 20 minutes of listening to a technical dialogue with the engineers that mostly goes over the salesperson's head, she wants to ask, "Exactly how will this new product meet our customers' needs today?"
But she doesn't. She doesn't want to sound insulting or reveal how little she understood the conversation.
Or have you ever been in a training session that was comprehensible until all of a sudden it wasn't? And your knee-jerk reaction was just to clam up because you didn't even know how to pose a purposeful question without feeling foolish.
I came across a great, timely example of why we need to stop being afraid of asking questions in a recent Harvard Business Review interview with Harvard Business School professor, leadership expert, and author Linda Hill.
Hill talked with a hospital executive dealing with Covid-19 who told her, “You know what? We need to have someone on our team who actually has never seen an epidemic before. We’re all experts. We think we’ve seen it all. We need someone who has never seen it because that person is going to ask us questions that will get at our first assumptions, because this disease seems to be operating in a way that we’re not really used to and we need someone to challenge us to do that creative abrasion with us.”
Convinced? I also love this advice from another HBR article . . .
"The unfortunate side effect of not asking enough questions is poor decisionmaking. That's why it's imperative that we slow down and take the time to ask more—and better—questions." —Harvard Business Review.
The good news is, you can learn to ask more and better questions. And when you do, you’ll conquer that dreaded fear of appearing incompetent or inadequate.
I want to share several types of questions that, when asked right, will help you contribute to and foster a meaningful discussion, whether it's during your next conference, meeting, presentation, or conference session. I'll also talk about ways to ask higher-quality questions to create an inclusive conversation where each person involved has input and influence.
(If you find the following pointers valuable and you'd like even more help with elevating your communication skills, our global team can deliver a custom curriculum to meet your needs.)
Mastering the art of asking good questions is a practical skill, and it starts with being clear on your intent.
Types of Questions to Ask for Better Results
So how can we structure questions to get better answers and elevate the conversation?
In a Harvard Business Review article, the authors categorize questions by your intent: clarifying, adjoining, funneling, and elevating.
They give a quick, visual overview in this short video . . .
Source: HBR.org, The Art of Asking Questions
Let's dive a little deeper into these four types of questions . . .
1. Clarifying questions - Here you’re trying to either affirm that you understand what’s being said, or communicate that you’re unclear. Asking clarifying questions helps to make sure everyone is on the same page in understanding the information or issue at hand. Plus, helping to create clear understanding builds deeper working relationships.
2. Adjoining questions - These questions open the dialogue to perspectives that are not being addressed in the conversation. An example might be, “How is this new initiative going to affect our European offices?” or “Can this technology apply to other products in development?” In this intensely virtual and hybrid world of ours, it’s becoming more and more important to consider a change or a problem from many different perspectives.
3. Funneling questions - When you want to do a deep dive to get more specific data, you funnel down with specific, analytical questions. You might want to understand how a colleague tested their data. Or challenge the assumptions driving a report. Or get at the root cause of a communication breakdown. As long as a line of probing questions is relevant and helpful to the discussion at hand, it can uncover much-needed information.
4. Elevating questions - Let’s say you’re in a project meeting and you think the team’s conversation has gotten so far into the weeds, they’re losing sight of the 10,000-ft picture. This is when you’d “elevate” the dialogue by asking everyone to step back and consider the overarching goal or issue. As you’ve probably experienced, many meetings end up being a giant waste of time because no one stepped in to ask, “Have we lost our focus?”
With these four question types in mind, consider these additional pointers to ensure your questions are elevating the conversation and ultimate outcome . . .
1. Try the obvious question, as it can be the most important.
Ask the question that no one else seems to be asking but is sitting right in front of everyone. It can be the smartest question to ask. I guarantee there is someone else in the room wondering the same thing.
2. Don’t ask with judgment
Be mindful of the difference between a question that focuses on empathy and understanding vs. one laced with judgment.
Empathy—one of the basic components of emotional intelligence—is a critical part of social awareness and, as such, key to success in life. It includes understanding others' feelings and behavior and intelligently using that understanding to forge stronger interpersonal relationships and make better decisions.
Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re delivering a question with a judgmental edge. But when we do, the contrast sounds something like this:
“Do you really believe that data and your source are accurate?”
“I see you’re relying heavily on this data and your source. Tell me a little more about why you trust them.”
You’ll get better insights and information when you lead with empathy and a genuine desire to understand when asking questions.
3. Ask open-ended questions
Open-ended questions prompt a richer, more detailed discussion, avoiding simple "yes" or "no" answers.
The classic 5 W's used by reporters—who, what, when, where, and why—are a great way to think about open-ended questions.
For example, instead of asking, “Was your meeting with the engineering team productive?” (which could elicit a vague “yes”), ask, “What were you able to accomplish in your meeting with the engineering team?” Or “Who in the meeting offered the most productive ideas?”
And here's an example of a closed-ended question vs. an open-ended one. Let’s say you want to get feedback on a webinar or event . . .
Closed Question: Was this experience what you expected?
Open Question: What were you expecting to experience?
Obviously, you'll gain more insights with the open-ended, but every question has its place and goal.
In this short video, MindTools elaborates on two of the question types, closed-ended and funneling . . .
Source: MindToolsVideos, "Questioning Techniques" via YouTube
4. Combine paraphrased and close-ended questions
When you paraphrase a question, you create a new question that expresses, in your words, what you think the speaker is saying. This allows you to do a quick check that your interpretation is correct, and it lets the questioner know you are striving to understand, and that their thoughts and feelings are important.
One important note about paraphrasing is that you don’t want to simply parrot back to the speaker what they said word for word. That often comes off as condescending. Plus, it won’t result in clarification from the speaker.
While paraphrased questions are, in themselves, often closed-ended questions eliciting yes-or-no answers (“Do I understand that you want three more planning meetings?”), you can go the extra mile in ensuring complete understanding by combining a paraphrased question with a closed-ended one.
Here's an example . . .
Paraphrased question: “If I understand you correctly, you’re saying we only need to do progress reports on this project three times a year?”
Respondent: “Yes, only January, June, and December.”
Affirming closed-ended question: “So we can drop the monthly reporting for all other months immediately?”
5. Be specific
If there’s a specific thing that’s unclear to you, name it, and be crystal clear about what you’re asking. If you’re vague, you’ll likely get a vague or irrelevant answer.
Let’s say you’re in a meeting where the presenter just described a sweeping overview of a process change that involves several departments. You’re not clear about how, exactly, the change will affect you.
Vague: “I don’t understand the effects of this process change” (to which the presenter would probably think you are referring to the effects on all departments).
Specific: “I don’t understand how my responsibilities will change with this new process.”
Closing thoughts . . .
Good questions open people up and create opportunities for a more clear, relevant, and productive dialogue. They can show people that you care, that they’ve been heard, and that you’re willing to risk asking the proverbial “dumb question” to increase understanding.
So, I encourage you to be fearless about asking questions.
I love this heartfelt observation from writer Malcolm Gladwell about his dad . . .
“My father has zero intellectual insecurities …It has never crossed his mind to be concerned that the world thinks he’s an idiot. He’s not in that game. So, if he doesn’t understand something, he just asks you. He doesn’t care if he sounds foolish.”— Malcolm Gladwell
Like anything else, overcoming the fear of asking questions and learning how to ask them well takes practice. Trust me, your career and the people who work with you will benefit from your curiosity—and your commitment to getting at the truth, uncovering overlooked perspectives, and bringing everyone into a circle of understanding.
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