Questions that Work

Summary Written by Dianne Coppola
"Imagine that you could improve the quality of the questions you asked by 10 percent. Would that result in 10 percent more useful information? Would it save you 10 percent of your workday in time? Could it lead to a 10 percent raise in salary at the end of the year?"

- Questions that Work, page 48

The Big Idea

Seek to Understand

"The best questioners see their q-and-a with another person as a tool for building a relationship."- Questions that Work, page 71

As a facilitator and consultant, my ability to ask insightful questions is crucial to my personal success and the success of the clients I work with. I’ve always considered questions to be a critical diagnostic tool and for guiding discussions about potential solutions and next steps. Experience has taught me that well-crafted questions produce thoughtful and insightful responses; poorly-worded questions result in vague, inaccurate and less-than-helpful answers.

The idea that questions can play a significant role in building (or undermining) relationships is not something I really gave much thought to. Sure, I’ve always asked ‘get-to-know-you’ questions in social situations and networking events. However, I don’t think I fully recognized the opportunities questions provide for building and nurturing relationships. Shifting my focus from seeking answers to establishing and strengthening relationships will subtly alter the way I ask questions and, perhaps more importantly, how I listen to the responses.

Insight #1

Conversations are NOT Tests!

"A businessperson should never forget the power of a good conversation. Conversation depends on the art of asking questions."- Questions that Work, page 68

Job interviews aside, I think we’ve all been in at least one conversation that has felt more like an inquisition rather than a dialogue. These situations are usually not pleasant. As fast as we answer one question another one is thrown at us and we get the distinct impression that there are ‘right’ answers and ‘wrong’ answers. This exchange becomes a one-sided interrogation focused solely on information-gathering and not on relationship-building. Sadly, the questioner is settling for a short-term, situation specific gain instead of choosing a long-term, diversified investment with dividends for both parties.

Finlayson emphasizes the importance of appreciation as an essential skill for relationship-building. He notes this is critical even when you are not getting the answers you need, or don’t like the information provided. Consider which of these two responses is more likely to strengthen a business relationship:

  1. “That’s not what I asked you. I want to know…”
  2. “I appreciate that is a concern for you. I’d like to hear more about…”

We would do well to remember that conversations are not academic tests with right and wrong answers: conversations are opportunities to establish and solidify relationships through shared dialogue. Strong and lasting relationships (whether business or personal) require give-and-take, a mutual sharing of knowledge, experiences and values. People prefer to work with and conduct business with individuals and organizations they trust, that treat them with honesty and respect, and pay attention to the small details that make each person feel valued and appreciated.

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Insight #2

Create a “To Ask” List!

"Instead of a “to do” list, consider creating a “to ask” list, to see what questions you really need answers to."- Questions that Work, page 5

To do lists often get a bad rap. I personally find they keep me focused on what needs to get done and help me to schedule and manage my time more effectively. So the idea of creating a “To Ask” list immediately captured my imagination. Finlayson believes focused questions stimulate more productive discussions which in turn improves your personal productivity and effectiveness. Good questions are tools that provide clarity, direction, and resolution in a confusing world. Pausing to consider what we really need to know versus what would be nice to know is one way to achieve more clarity. This is true even if you are using the questions to guide your own personal reflection rather than in a dialogue with others.

Try generating a list of questions about one of the agenda items to be discussed at your next business meeting. Not so that you morph into the relentless inquisitor I mentioned earlier but rather so that all participants can better understand the relevant aspects of the topic or challenge under discussion. Include questions to help isolate the relevant facts, explore the pros and cons of possible solutions, and appreciate why people feel the way they do about the situation. Remember, poorly-worded questions elicit incomplete answers and we dramatically increase the risk of asking a poor question when devising them on the fly.

Are you concerned that your ‘to ask’ list will contain poorly thought out questions? Fear not! In addition to Finlayson’s Questions that Work there are a number of books that have compiled sample questions to guide a range of business conversations. Great questions can also be found in blog posts, magazine articles and by listening carefully to the questions others ask. Jot down the ones you like and in no time at all you’ll have a repository of questions that work.

As someone who regularly uses questions to help others become more focused and successful, I gained several new insights from Finlayson’s exploration of the role of questioning in the workplace and the importance of nurturing a supportive questioning culture. And, the chapters containing topic specific questions will be another valuable resource to guide my future business conversations.

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Andrew Finlayson

Andrew Finlayson is the Senior Vice President of Digital Media Strategies at SmithGeiger where he serves as the senior consultant regarding leading edge digital media issues spanning social media, streaming video and mobile news consumption for many top media and digital companies.

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