Want to Make Better Decisions? Ask Better Questions.
We’ve all heard the adage, “There’s no such thing as a bad question”… but let’s be honest – we have all been subjected to a question at some point that prompted a mental response of “Are you kidding me?!” This reaction is usually accompanied by rolling of the eyes, shaking of the head, feelings of disgust, and so on.
On the other hand, masterfully worded and perfectly timed questions have the ability to provoke deep thought, challenge previously held beliefs, reveal new unimagined solutions to problems, or even alter the mission of an entire organization. While the goal of most questions is typically not this lofty, it is worth taking into consideration the power that such a simple act can have.
The behavior of asking questions is something we figure out at a very young age. It comes quite naturally. However, asking effective questions that allow you to make informed decisions requires a bit more thought. Before formulating a question, make sure you consider 1) Purpose and 2) Audience.
- Purpose – why you are asking the question and what you hope to achieve with the results.
Always remember to focus on one topic at a time. Mixing purposes can be confusing to the audience and will lead them to provide inaccurate or inconsequential feedback. When you have a single, concrete purpose, the subject knows exactly what is being asked of them and can deliver the most precise information.
To start, you should be able to answer the following questions about yourself:
- What do I need to know? Keyword being “need.” Avoid wasting others’ time by asking “nice to know” questions about things you will not act on.
- How am I going to use this information once I have it? The decision or action being made should drive the line of questioning. Be certain of what you want to accomplish before initiating your inquiry.
- What is the best way to obtain this information? Don’t always assume that the easiest way is the best way. An email or instant message may take less time and effort, but is often misinterpreted or even ignored. A phone call or face-to-face conversation demonstrates sincerity and can produce a more detailed, meaningful response.
Once you can answer these three questions, you should have a clearly defined purpose. For example, I want to find out the level of effort for a previous project in order to create an estimate for a project plan involving a similar task. To accomplish this, I will go talk to my colleague and see if he will send me the level of effort figures from his recent project.
- Audience – the target individual or group from whom you hope to gain a response.
Assessing your audience is a crucial prerequisite for any form of communication. You want to ensure the individual or group is comfortable providing information and is aware of how this information will be used.
Consider the following audience perspectives:
- What motivates them to respond? You want to make it clear to the audience the reason you are asking for their feedback and what you plan to do with it.
- How might they respond differently based on the question phrasing? Put yourself in the shoes of the interviewee and brainstorm ways in which the question could be misinterpreted. Your language should be as clear and concise as possible to obtain the desired response.
- What is their competency level and/or willingness to provide information regarding the subject in question? Knowing this ahead of time is not a guarantee, but an assessment of your audience’s background can help identify whether they are the “right person” to go to.
Remember that this is a two-way exchange; the more you put in, the more you get out. When you’ve done your research to increase audience motivation and buy-in, it definitely shows. This is most important in non-face-to-face settings, such as emails, texts, or discussion boards. These forms of inquiry often fail to yield meaningful results because people feel disconnected. Good questions should simulate a conversation and prompt the respondent to share his/her experiences and ideas on a relevant topic.
Questions are universally critical to success across all organizations and roles. Not only do they help you gather new information, learn new skills, and establish new relationships, questions help enhance your credibility.
You’re not always going to hold all the answers, so knowing how to ask the right questions as well as who to ask will put you at a serious advantage. Get started on your way to knowing more and expanding your influence by asking better questions today!