• open panel

Mastering the Art of Inquiry

You receive massive amounts of information at work and in your personal life every day. But are you getting the information you really need? Do you know how to ask the right questions and actively listen to the answers–whatever they may be–in order to gain the knowledge and insights you need to be successful?

There are two types of questions: open and closed. Open questions encourage people to share information in a free flowing manner. Closed questions solicit specific information, such as “What is your name?” and “Where is the train station?” Most of us are comfortable asking closed questions because the answers are helpful and straightforward.

But when you ask an open question and listen carefully to the answer, you may discover something you were not expecting. In fact, the answer might challenge your assumptions and require you to adjust to new circumstances.

If, for example, your employee did something that didn’t turn out well, you could ask him why he did it. That is an open question, but unless you ask it in a supportive, non-threatening way, he could become defensive. A more productive open question might be, “Can you tell me what you were thinking about when you did it?” His answer to that question will shed greater light on his motives and intentions and give you more of the information you need to help him make better decisions.

Basic journalism techniques such as asking who, what, why, when, where, and how can help you gain valuable information. However, one of the easiest ways to get people to talk is to ask with genuine interest, “Can you tell me more about that,” or, “Can you help me understand what you mean?” When people believe they can trust you, they will tell you what you need to know.

Why ask questions?

Five crucial reasons for asking questions and actively listening to the answers are:

 

1) To Obtain and Clarify Information

Have you ever responded to a request from your customer, boss, or spouse and later realized that you didn’t have all the information you needed? Perhaps during the interaction you were focused on something else or distracted by your own thoughts. You can avoid such unpleasant situations in the future by taking a moment, when a request is being made, to stop and ask questions that give you accurate information and a clear understanding of the circumstances. Then reflect back to the person what you heard to ensure mutual agreement as to what is needed to achieve the desired outcome and to confirm you have enough direction to satisfy their expectations.

Should you have a different opinion about how something should be done, ask open questions that help you understand the other person’s point of view. Good questions might be, “Why is it important to do it this way?” and, “How will this process affect the results?” The answers will help you support the person properly.

Take a tip from former Notre Dame Football Coach Lou Holtz, who said, “I never learn anything by talking. I only learn when I ask questions.”

 

2) To Provoke Thought and Promote Teamwork

Have you ever heard a question or comment about something that made you realize you had never considered that subject in that particular way? It may or may not have changed the way you think–yet it helped you to see things differently.
Asking open questions of yourself and others leads to a broader perspective and promotes good teamwork. When a colleague is doing something that seems strange to you, rather than asking her why she is doing it that way, ask yourself why she is doing it that way. The answer may surprise you.

The same is true in helping others value your opinion or approach. By asking your colleague why she thinks you do things the way you do, you open the door to a potentially productive dialogue and better teamwork. The key is to ask questions that help you and others see both sides of the issue without invalidating either point of view.

People will give you all kinds of information if you treat them with dignity and respect. According to Peter Drucker, world-renowned business consultant, author, and speaker, “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”

 

3) To Gain Control of a Situation

Often, people try to solve a problem without first questioning whether they know what the problem really is, or making certain the problem is clearly understood by everyone involved in finding the solution.

In this case, the right questions can assist you in forming a strategy to take control of the situation. But even the best questions are only effective if you truly listen to the answers and clearly understand the other person’s position.

When someone is angry, let him or her know that you sincerely want to know why. By asking “What makes you say that?” then, “What can we do to alleviate this?” and listening to the answers with an open mind, you will set the stage for finding the solution. You will be in control of the situation if you are more interested in finding a good solution than in being right.

 

4) To Promote Your Power of Persuasion

We all have our own opinions, but the people you want to persuade may not have all the facts. To get others to agree with you, ask questions that, as they are answered, cause others to see the advantages of what you are promoting or the problems you want to avoid. In other words, ask questions that help people see “what’s in it for them.”

It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Some of the world’s greatest sales professionals are masters of this technique. They put themselves in their customer’s shoes and ask, “What would make me believe that?” or, “Why should I care about this?”

To learn how to ask these types of questions, watch others who do it well and read books that teach how to ask effective questions. As Dorothy Leeds, author of The 7 Powers of Questions, wrote, “There are only two major ways to get information: by watching and reading and by asking questions and listening.” The Seven Powers of Questions and Smart Questions by Dorothy Leeds, How to Sell New Ideas by Eugene Raudsepp and Joseph C. Yeager, and SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham, are excellent resources.

 

5) To Help You Become a Better Listener

When you ask a question, naturally you have self-interest in hearing the answer. To truly benefit from the information the answer provides you must care about what the other person is saying. When others believe that you will treat them with the level of integrity and confidentiality they need to give you an honest answer, the relationships you have with customers, fellow employees, management, and in your personal life will strengthen and grow.

Remember, you may know all that is possible to know at a given moment, but you should never stop asking questions and gathering information. As John Wooden, a former UCLA basketball coach said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

If you want to be a better leader, or just a more productive person, take time to master the art of inquiry.