Lousy Questions Give You Lousy Answers

Linda LaitalaManagementLeave a Comment

One of the best bosses I ever worked for didn’t know a thing about technology, yet she supervised a department steeped in it.  She was a professionally trained writer who loved words.  What she didn’t love or know much about was computer hardware, software, connectivity, compatibility and gadgets.  Suddenly she was thrust into a world inhabited by geeks all speaking a foreign language.   

Patsy had a skill that helped her navigate her new territory.  It was her ability to ask effective questions in a way that would flush out the information she needed to make good decisions.

Here’s how she did it.

Most of her questions were limited to one sentence.  She’d state the problem or issue in detail, but the question itself was only one sentence.

  • What will we need to do to ship this product on time?
  • What’s causing all the rejections?
  • What do we have to do to win the company productivity contest this month?
  • What would you do if you were in my shoes?

Even if Patsy thought she knew the answer, she never let on.  Her questions were neutral and designed to ferret out new ideas.

She didn’t talk much but she took copious notes.  She knew what she knew–what she wanted to know was what we knew.

The questions she asked were rarely either/or questions.  She also didn’t ask questions that had options.  She knew her staff could come up with more options than she ever could; she didn’t want them to feel boxed in by ideas from “the boss”.

Her follow-up questions were short and open-ended as well; they were designed to dig deeper and bring clarity.

Once Patsy asked a question she shut up and let people think.  She didn’t rush to fill the silence and didn’t try to re-clarify the question.  Best of all she didn’t pretend she understood when she didn’t.  She admitted she didn’t understand, but she wanted to and asked us to restate our answer differently.

Whether you’re a new leader or an expert in your field, asking good questions can pay huge dividends.  Here are some questions you might find useful:

  • What do you think we should do about….?
  • What’s the best way to deal with [Joe’s] situation?
  • Do you understand why it’s important to….?
  • Are you crystal clear about what needs to be done and by when?  Would you explain it to me please?
  • Why?
  • How so?
  • What barriers are preventing us from….?
  • Is there a downside to….?
  • What could prevent us from being successful at….?

Asking effective questions is more art than science; but it’s a skill that can be learned.  Go out and learn something you didn’t know.  Ask a few questions.

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