“I keep six honest serving men they taught me all I knew, their names were what and where and when and how and why and who“ Rudyard Kipling
In an earlier article in this series entitled “Untested Assumptions”, I described such assumptions as one of a manager’s worst enemies. Acting on untested assumptions can have dire consequences necessitating much undoing and significant embarrassment. To avoid the problem, I recommended the artful use of QUESTIONS designed to put one’s assumptions to the test.
The best managers learn over time that the ability to ask questions — and the gut feel for where, when and for what purpose to ask them — is perhaps one of the most powerful tools in their manager’s kit bag. They also learn quickly that the ability to use the questioning tool effectively is not as simple as it might seem. Anyone reading the masterful use of the questioning art form employed by Socrates in Plato’s “Apology”, is easily impressed for life by his power to uncover facts and the truth. But few of us can aspire to reach the level of mastery the “Apology” depicts.
Still like any skill, the harder we work at improving our questioning ability — the more we practice it — the better we are likely to get. There is a considerable body of literature covering the dos and do nots of effective questioning available both on and off-line and various training opportunities as well. What follows here are a few of my thoughts and suggestions that will hopefully ignite your desire to evaluate your own questioning skills and design a plan to further develop them.
First, begin with the mind-set that as good a questioner as you may currently be, you can still get better. I have known far to many managers way to interested in letting others know what they think, rather than take the time to ask questions designed to elicit the different perspective and knowledge of others. Do not be one of them.
Second, it is important to think carefully about what precisely you need to know in any given situation. Not all questions are equally likely to serve your knowledge-gaining purposes, so be discriminating and try to avoid wasteful data excursions.
Third, in many situations — provided you have the time — you will benefit from questioning a variety of sources. The best managers become keen judges of who specifically they need to question based on the issue at hand. Moreover, you can generally take for granted that always talking to the same folks regardless of the issue, is not the best questioning strategy.
Fourth, the best questions are DIRECT, OPEN, and PROBING. And the best questioners favor a SIMPLE VOCABULARY that leaves little doubt about what they are asking. Good questions reveal nothing about the questioner’s opinions, view, or potential bias and allow the answerer to respond in whatever way he or she deems best.
Fifth, good questions probe for FACTS not opinions. To be a good questioner, one needs to develop a keen ear for answers that appear to have little factual basis to support their assertions and the ability to dig deeper when necessary. I can recall far too many gatherings — especially those with highly confident executives in attendance — where splendidly articulated points of view were exchanged with only the thinnest substantive support to back them up. So learn to dig for the facts.
Sixth, always be aware that your use of direct, probing questions in search of facts may strike those being questioned as threatening, intimidating, or presumptuous. Thus your ability to read the verbal and non-verbal feedback your questions generate and willingness to refine your approach if necessary, will enhance your prospects of realizing your knowledge goal.
Finally, It is critical to know when to persist with your questions and when to stop. The time constraints for action faced by most managers often dictates that stopping point. But the pursuit of more information can also be used to put off unpleasant decisions or to procrastinate in hopes of avoiding a decision you would rather not make. The very best questioners generally have the knack for knowing when enough is enough.