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Seven Ways to Ask Better Questions

April 13, 2011

Getting to the heart of the matter quickly doesn’t just save time it ensures that relationships are built upon a clear understanding of the whole truth.

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Don't make your staff have to turn themselves into The Incredible Hulk to get your attention.

To work effectively in and across teams it is essential to be able to connect honestly with others. Asking good questions helps to foster trust and shows genuine interest in the other person. Leaders who are able to ask better questions can expect to build stronger teams that perform at higher standards than the norm.

Whether we are engaging with customers, interviewing job candidates, talking to bosses, or requesting information from colleagues, as leaders we need to draw people out. And so often it is not a matter of what you ask but how you ask it.

Here are seven suggestions:

1. Listen more than you speak. We have two ears and one mouth, the old adage of using them in that proportion still holds true. And don’t be afraid to use silence to draw out a full answer.

2. Get curious. Prepare ahead of the conversation so that you have a list of unanswered questions in your mind and avenues that you want to explore further.

3. Be open-ended. Ask questions that get people to reveal not simply what happened, but also what they were thinking and feeling . Open questions begin with words like Who, What, Where, When Why, How and So. They tend to elicit more information than you’d expect and provoke the person answering to examine their position more thoroughly.

4. Engage. Be fully in the room, both in body and mind. Demonstrate that you care both audibly with your affirming words and physically with encouraging nods and gestures.

5. Dig deep. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that no news is good news. Some say there is no such thing as just one right answer. Probe for more detail, by picking up on key facts, if someone is not telling the truth continual probing on a point will soon highlight the lie. This can be a sensitive process so guard against recrimination and simply ask gentle questions to gain clarity, taking care not to stray away from the key point.

6. Right time right place. There will be times when it’s necessary to call someone into an office but sometimes a more relaxed environment is more conducive to exploring a challenging issue so seek out opportunities for unrushed conversations over coffee, during a walk or a car journey.

7. Repeat. Summarise your understanding of what you’ve heard allowing time for any misunderstandings to be corrected – very often when hearing their answers back people will add pertinent information.

Asking good questions in a spirit of honest information gathering and ongoing collaboration, will cultivate an environment where team members feel comfortable discussing issues that affect their performance. In turn this creates a foundation for deepening levels of trust.

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