Horse Crossing Sign

What is the Question?  Horse Crossing

Questions are a powerful tool for eliciting information, helping people grow, or leading people.  However asking questions often requires more than just opening your mouth and uttering the first words that come to mind.  Asking the right questions at the right time is a combination of art, science, and preparation.

  1.     Have a Goal

Establish what your end game is for asking a question.  For example, are you trying to gather facts, an opinion, or change behavior?  Your goal will affect both how you phrase a question and timing of delivery.

  1.     Develop a Strategy

Depending on the goal, the questioner needs to decide how they interact with the person they are going to ask questions.  I recently provided advice for a leader that wanted to help an employee identify and address a behavior issue.  The set of questions we agreed upon were designed to help the employee identify and then develop a solution to the problem.  The strategy was very different than the questioning strategy I would employ for a guest on the Software Process and Measurement Cast.  The strategy needs to meet the goal of the conversation

  1.     Loosely Script Questions

Based on the goal and strategy, develop a loose script of questions.  For example, if I am trying to gather information or opinions I will put together a set of questions with possible follow-up questions.  Even if you never use the script, game planning the interaction can make it easier to listen rather than concentrate on thinking up the next question. Consider starting by asking broad questions then spinning down into more detailed questions.

  1.     Use Humor and Negative Emotion Carefully

Humor is a great tool to build connections between people.  The problem is that one person’s humor is not always the same as another’s. When humor doesn’t click the interaction will tend to shut down.  Anger (real or feigned) makes a great theater in oration, however, embedding anger in a question will tend to shut a conversation down and cause the person answering the question to be very guarded, reducing the value of the answer.

  1.     Open Conversation (if that fits with the goal)

Use questions to facilitate an open conversation. Open-ended questions are often a good tool to get a person to open up and begin talking.  For example, asking a development team to describe the project they are currently working on will illicit more information than asking whether a team made the date they committed to making.

  1.     Listen

Ask a question, then stop and listen to the answer.  Listening is not the same as using the time to create a new question or to answer a text message.  Multitasking is a myth.  Listen first, then react to what you have heard.

  1.     Ask Only What You Need

There is an old maxim, take what you need and leave the rest.  Time is precious: do not abuse the time and attention you get when interacting with people.

These are just a few suggestions for getting better at asking questions.  Some of them, such as having a goal and strategy, are applicable to every scenario. Scripting might not be needed in every situation. However you likely need to consider your approach if asking something more complicated than whether dinner will be in 30 minutes. Even then, I think conscious thought might be needed.