Questions offer us the opportunity to open our minds, explore new thoughts and ideas, and gain a better understanding. There’s an art to asking the right question at the right time. 

Someone once told me to think of it this way, Is this the right question, is this the right time, and am I the right person to ask it? Not all situations are our playgrounds where we can throw out any question without thinking about the ramifications. Sometimes, it’s better if we just hold our thoughts and listen.

In his book, QBQ, The Question Behind the Question, Author John G. Miller focuses on asking questions that lead to our accountability in all aspects of our life. Miller does a brilliant job of making us aware of the questions we use to duck and weave responsibility. These are the questions we ask that start with ‘why’ and ‘who’. 

In her YouTube TED talk, Increase Your Self-awareness With One Simple Fix, Dr. Tasha Eurich also suggests limiting the use of ‘why’ questions and using ‘what’ questions. Dr. Eurich suggests that if we work on using the ‘what’ questions we can avoid rabbit holes, deflections, avoidance, and redirection that why questions create.

Leaders don’t need all the answers

They need the right questions. Leaders will sometimes tell me that they wish they had all the answers. I know that might make things easier and make things more difficult because people may not like the answer we give them. However, they might like the questions we ask them if they are the right questions. Using the right questions can help your staff take ownership of the outcome.

After spending many years as a university instructor I have come to appreciate the well-placed question. When working with or teaching adults, questions that solicit their knowledge or experience usually produce more engaging results. For the most part, people like to share what they know so they feel included, they feel heard, they feel a part of the solution, and they feel they bring value to the conversation. 

I was sitting with a group of young adults talking about going to Europe. They spent the better part of 45 minutes talking over each other wanting to share what they all knew about traveling in Europe. Most of their knowledge came from what they read on the internet. Two out of the group had been to Europe for short visits. My wife and I have traveled through Europe and Great Britain, we spent 18 months living in Germany and working for the university. 

My wife and I sat there smiling at each other because no one asked us about our experiences. They all assumed they were experts on traveling through Europe. This type of conversation has happened before and the result is… someone finally asks us after the fact, “Why didn’t you tell us that would happen?” I tell them that they were so busy trying to prove that they knew everything that no one ever asked the question. 

The art of silence

I want to say that I’m guilty of talking too much when I’m nervous or talking about something that I’m not an expert in. We all do this from time to time. I was talking to a colleague the other day who did her first training on resilience. I asked her from her perspective how it went. She said that she was nervous at first and caught herself talking nonstop. She said that she realized what she was doing, stopped, and started asking questions and the training became more engaging.

Someone once told me that no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Asking the right questions and holding your thoughts or responses is a way to show you care and respect the other person. Practice silence, you will be amazed at what you hear.

The difference between the gap of understanding and the gap of misunderstanding

The gap of understanding is what you don’t know. The gap of misunderstanding is already filled in by what you know, or think you know. Until you get clarification between what you know and what you don’t know the gap will always be there. 

For you to make educated decisions you need to fill in the gaps of understanding. Here are three questions that you can begin practicing for yourself. These three questions will help you to decide what the right question is to ask.

  1. What do I know?
  2. What don’t I know?

What happens between those two questions is determined by how skilled you are in active listening

I have ADD, attention deficit disorder. My wife understands my struggle with hearing what she says and listening to what she says because I have to practice how to focus when others are talking to me. Early on in our relationship, she started asking me another crucial question. This one annoyed me because it sounded to me like she didn’t believe me when I told her I was listening to her. I am grateful to this day that she still asks me this question because I know she is assisting me in working on my focus. Here is question number three.

3. What did you hear me say?

I still get this wrong more times than I get it right. It stops me from assuming I heard what was said helps me to clarify what was said and reduces misunderstandings. The difference between the gap of misunderstanding, what I originally thought about the question, and the gap of understanding, why she’s asking the question is huge and the outcome of my understanding has gone from annoyance to gratitude. 

Asking questions of curiosity

The gap of understanding is crucial for both sides of a conversation especially when there is conflict. In conflict emotions take control and no one is listening.

How you state the question is determined by how you unconsciously believe the question will be answered. Let’s say a big change initiative is coming down through the organization. You have been in meetings and heard the rationale behind the change presented to you by your leaders but you still don’t like the change. 

You meet with your team and as leaders, we know that the team will sense how we feel about something. You don’t like the change and you are forced to present it to your team in a way that everyone is on board. You explain to your team what’s happening and as expected they pick up on your view of the change through tone, nonverbal language, and how you are handling their questions.

There is a lull in the discussion and here is the prime opportunity to ask the right question. Everyone has made it clear that no one likes the change. In your mind you ask yourself, how are we going to wade through this disaster? Here is the question you ask,

How are we going to support this change initiative?   

Without realizing it, you know how this question is going to be answered because in your head you have decided that it’s a stupid idea. Here’s how everyone heard the question.

HOW, are we going to support this change initiative? 

The only word they hear in this question is how because they have already in their minds decided that this is going to be a challenge. To add to what they heard you emphasized the word ‘how’ and paused for a split second making the question sound like a defeated statement and in doing so, no one responded. 

Let’s change how you ask the question. Same scenario, this time, you agree with everyone that this is going to be challenging and we are going to have to do it, you check your tone and ask this question.

What can we do to support this change initiative? 

You agreed that this is going to be challenging and we are in this together so what are some ways we can work together and support each other to make this change happen? Sure you may still get some pushback but instead of the ‘how’ rabbit hole of defeat, you have opened the door to having a healthy dialogue.  

 Does this work every time? Nope, nothing works perfectly but it can drastically close the gap between misunderstanding and understanding. I’m not saying to not use ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions, sometimes we need to use them to get us on the same page. For example,

  • Why do you think the project failed? This question helps to narrow down the possibilities.
  • What could we do to reduce or eliminate failure the next time we try this? This is the right question to ask to help further narrow down and target specific behaviors or challenges.

There are no perfect questions to ask every time. This is why I call it the art of asking the right question. Never be in a hurry to ask a question, ask yourself is this the right question to ask, is this the right time to ask it, and am I the right person to be asking it?

Exercise | Deliberate practice

First, let’s start with remembering a few things. 

  1. Dr. Eurich tells us to limit using ‘why’ and use ‘what’ for questions.
  2. John Miller tells us to limit the use of ‘why’ and ‘who’ for questions.
  3. Practice using these three questions,
  • What do I know?
  • What don’t I know
  • What did you hear me say?

4. Ask questions that evoke curiosity.

Now, start asking the right question. This takes practice because it causes you to change your language which will take time to rewire your brain, habits, and behaviors. 

In the post titled, Active Listening vs. Generative Listening – Listening Between The Lines I presented this list of questions. I repeated them here because I thought they might help.  

The probing question

Conversations can get convoluted when many facts or ideas are presented. Using a probing question can help wade through the noise.

  • What do you mean by__________?
  • What other ways did you try?
  • Can you identify what worked in the past in this situation?
  • What specifically is happening?
  • From your perspective, what are we not seeing?

The clarifying question

This question helps to cut through the noise as well. It helps you to understand what exactly is being said.

  • What I’m hearing you say is _______________, is that right?
  • What specifically is holding you back from______________?
  • Can you tell me more about_________________?
  • What does that look like to you?
  • Is there another way to look at this?
  • Tell me more.

The focus question

Sometimes the rabbit hole can go deep so you need to bring the conversation back to the original intent. 

  • What’s the desired outcome you are looking for?
  • What exactly are you proposing?
  • What else do we need to consider?
  • What benefits would you like to see from____________?

The ‘what else’ question

A critical step in asking questions is to make sure you have covered or uncovered everything. How many times have you been in a conversation and you feel the real issue has not surfaced? This is where you use the bonus skill of silence. Ask the question, then wait… for them to answer. 

  • What else?
  • What did we not cover in our conversation?
  • What else do we need to address?
  • What will you do with the information we talked about?
  • What are your next steps?
  • What do we need to do to move forward? 

The health of a conversation will be determined by the questions asked

Many of these questions are interchangeable and can be used in multiple situations. The point is, to ask questions, then listen with the intent to understand.

The more engaging and curious questions asked the better chance the dialogue will be rich and healthy as well.    

Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.