"The ability to ask the right question is more than half the battle of finding the answer."
-Thomas J. Watson, revolutionary CEO of IBM
Why should we ask questions? What are the keys to asking effective questions? What are some key questions we should be asking? Good questions indeed. Some of you are already expert at asking questions and reaping the benefits. Some of you are like me - we realize that we have room to improve in asking questions and using that tool to help us be better managers and make our teams more successful.
Let's dig in and explore some answers to the questions raised above.
Why Ask Questions?
Why should we ask questions? Here are some of the reasons why we should ask questions and why questions are so important:
We only get answers to the questions we ask. Asking questions is a great tool to find answers - and we never get answers to questions we never ask. Thomas Berger said "The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge."
We ask questions to obtain information. The primary purpose of asking a question is to obtain information. I resonate with Lou Holtz when he said "I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions."
We ask questions to connect with people and show interest in them. Perhaps the most effective way to connect with others is by asking questions. By asking questions we can find out more about people which can help us build rapport, show empathy and build stronger relationships.
We ask questions to cultivate humility. It is wise for us to humble ourselves and seek knowledge and wisdom from others. Even King Solomon, perhaps the wisest man who ever lived, look at the enormity of his leadership responsibilities and said "I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties." Og Madino adds, "Take the attitude of a student, never too big to ask questions, never know too much to learn something new."
We ask questions to ensure understanding or knowledge. Questions can test for understanding and help clarify there is true understanding.
We ask questions to encourage further thought. Questions can be used to encourage people to about something more deeply. Socrates was famous for asking questions to stimulate thinking and draw answers out of people that never knew they had.
Questions can help us build better ideas. The old adage "two heads are better than one" applies when we are developing ideas. Asking questions can help us flesh out ideas and make them better than originally conveyed.
Questions can challenge mind-sets and help us get out of ruts. Questions can be the starting place to stimulate creative thinking, discovery and innovation.
What Are the Keys to Asking Effective Questions
Following are some keys to asking effective questions that will lead to the benefits described earlier:
Effective questions are open-ended, instead of yes/no questions. The goal is to draw people and information out and get more complete responses.
When asking effective questions, it is important to listen and wait for the answer and not provide the answer. Active listening motivates people to share more deeply and can help us better understand their answers.
Behind effective questioning is also the ability to listen to the answer and suspend judgment. This means being intent on understanding what the person is really trying to say. This follows Stephen's Covey principle of "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."
Effective questioning includes thought provoking questions that stimulate people to think and understand for themselves. For example, when working with people to solve a problem a good question might be "What do you think the problem is?"
What Are Good Questions to Ask Ourselves as Leaders?
Here are some good questions to ask ourselves as leaders. I have adapted these questions from John Maxwell's book "Good Leaders Ask Great Questions":
Am I Investing in Myself? A Question of Personal Growth. The most important investments we make are not financial - but the investments we make to develop ourselves so we can better serve others.
Am I Genuinely Interested in Others? A Question of Motivation. Motives matter. Are we primarily focused on helping ourselves - or helping others?
Am I Grounded as a Leader? A Question of Stability. One important component of being grounded is to be humble. Nobody likes following an arrogant leader. Rick Warren defines humility well when he said "Humility is not denying your strengths. Humility is being honest about your weaknesses. All of us are a bundle of both great strengths and great weaknesses and humility is being able to be honest about both."
Am I Adding Value to My Team? A Question of Teamwork. John Wooden was quoted as saying there was one question he asked himself every day - "how can I make my team better?"
Am I Staying in My Strength Zone? A Question of Effectiveness. Sometimes we have responsibilities that force us out of our strength areas. But research shows we are far more effective when we spend the majority of our time operating in our strength zones. Samuel Johnson was right when he said "Almost every man wastes part of his life in attempts to display qualities he does not possess."
Am I Taking Care of Today? A Question of Success. Every day consists of 1,440 minutes that we can waste away or make them count. I am encouraged by the words of John Wooden when he shared the advice from his father to "Make every day your masterpiece". Making time every day in Stephen Covey's Quadrant Two is important - doing things that are "important but not urgent" such as planning, building relationships, developing our faith, learning, and taking care of our health.
What Are Good Questions to Ask Our Team Members?
Robert Half said, "Asking the right questions takes as much skill as giving the right answers." I want to leave you with some potentially good questions to ask your team members at relevant times:
What do you think?
How can I serve you?
Did we meet or exceed expectations?
What can we do to make the team even more successful?
What did you learn from this experience?
Did we add value to our stakeholders?
How could I help make your job better?
What do I need to know?
What am I missing?
If you were the boss, what is the one change you would make?
Here is a final quote from Anthony Robbins: "Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better results." I wish you and your team the best of success as you ask better questions and get better results!
P.S. I will be attending and speaking at the Las Vegas MAILCOM conference September 28-30. If it fits your schedule I would enjoy seeing you there!
Wes Friesen, MBA, CMDSM, MDC, EMCM, MCOM, CCE, CBA, CBF, ICP, CCM, CMA, CM, CFM, APP, PHR manages multiple departments for a utility based in the Northwest. Wes also teaches university classes and is a featured speaker at national Conferences like MAILCOM, National Postal Forum, NACUMS, and other regional and local events. Check out his personal web-site for free information (www.wesfriesen.com). He can be contacted at email@example.com.