• On 16/01/2021
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Asking questions

One of my philosophies of being in the world is asking questions. As a consultant and project manager, a large part of my job was asking questions, but not in the yes or no sort of question way. Instead, the questions were a form of listening and responding to get a sense of where the project was or what problems were happening or what barriers existed, but to also get a sense of how the people were doing and feeling.

I came across a piece recently that talked about the “question-asking” that interests and complements my own view of using questions as a way to move projects, team building, and organizations forward. From the article:

While question asking has long been studied and powerfully deployed by scientific, academic, philosophical, and religious scholars, only recently have social scientists begun to untangle how question asking in public and private can impact the individual question asker, the person being asked, and even those who observe the inquiry.

This is why I try to teach students how to ask better questions no matter the situations they may find themselves in.

When I was studying for my PhD, I learned a lot about the Ancient Greek rhetoricians and their approaches to teaching and learning. I am without doubt a socratic teacher that usually moves discussions and such forward through asking questions. Some of my favorite questions are

  • can you tell us how you got there [at the conclusion; at your interpretation; at your view]
  • what is an example of that? (this question is to get at the reasons and rationale or even evidence of the thing)
  • can you offer an alternative view? what would be the flip-side of that? who is left out of this conversation?
  • how does X affect Y? how does X work with Y? how do you think X causes Y?
  • what does X really mean (to you, to culture, to the organization, to society, to your stance)?
  • in what situation can X and y both be true?

Versions of these can be applied across a whole host of situations. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a friend of mine whom I worked with on a. consulting project. I went out first to this organization and did the preliminary work, which usually just meant that I talked to a lot of people.

Said another way, I asked a lot of questions and listened intently and purposefully.

When my friend arrived, we took all the data I had collected and proceeded to do the final parts of the project and then deliver the results to the C-suite people. We all went out to dinner and drinks after to celebrate a successful partnership that really had gotten some things accomplished. My friend ended up talking to the CEO for a while in this more casual environment. When we get back to the hotel, my friend and I are having a night cap and he looks at me and says, “you know, the CEO, thought he had made the biggest mistake hiring us.”

“really, why was that?”

“Well, he just didn’t understand you and what you were doing. He told me that after you met with him, at the end of each day, he checked in with every person you talked to. He wasn’t seeing any work being done except you asking, and I quote him here, “too damn many questions.” He was perplexed as to why it seemed you were doing things that you didn’t need to be on site for. It wasn’t until he saw the reports, analysis, and all the recommendations and other documents that your process made sense to him.”

I laughed then.

My friend goes on, “yeah, I don’t understand your damn process either but it always works!”

I tell this anecdote because the sign of good questions are those that uncover things and then lead to other questions. The process of talking to people I used on this job where this anecdote originated was one of a waterfall of sorts. the questions and answers from one person lead to different questions to the next. But if any of those people talked to one another, it was highly likely that what I was doing made no sense. That in effect was part of their problem. The processes that they were using were all obscured even to each other.

But it was the method of question asking that made this job successful, and I hope I am able to teach my students how to ask better questions. Because a John Hagel recently wrote in HBR, “Leaders who ask powerful questions have the greatest success in both seizing new opportunities and addressing unexpected challenges —and they build cultures that will carry these benefits into the future.”

I found much to like about this infographic of general list of Socratic questions that break the questions into categories based on what you’re trying to accomplish.

So I’ll just end with the idea that the easiest way to get to answers to complex problems is start with asking good questions.

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