Asking the Right Questions
Why is that even when we are trying to ask the right questions, like open ended questions, we end up asking close ended questions? Notice, how I asked a truly open ended question. It’s not easy. The reason open ended questions are better questions, is that they engage the audience much more. Think about the conversations you could have with customers and team members if you asked better questions and listened more. Open ended questions, when done well, yield much deeper discussions producing far more insight and better outcomes than you ever could have by asking the usual 20 questions.
I have found myself asking this open ended question many times in my career – why is it so hard to ask the right question? No matter how many times I prepare a list of open ended questions to keep in my back pocket for client discovery meeting or facilitated discussion, I find myself diverting to the close ended question come go time. I suspect it’s because of fear of the unknown. What if someone responds in a way I had not prepared? What would I do then?
I facilitate a role play exercise with my teams in my leadership development training. They are instructed to only use open ended questions to find out more about their partner. As I listen in on the conversations, I always notice multiple close ended questions. I usually hear something like this, “Can you do this <X>?”…or something like that. I casually remind them that they are supposed to be asking open ended questions, and usually observe a surprised look on their face, and a shake of the head to indicate they thought they had been asking open ended questions all along.
Close ended questions are safe. They give us the false sense of security that we are the experts. We know the answers. I assert that we do it because we hope that if we ask the right questions, it will produce the right outcome. The person being interrogated confirms our thinking with a “yes” or “no”, we pinpoint a solution based on what we heard, then move quickly to gaining agreement or resolution. But do we really? Notice the intentional close ended question…
We fear ambiguity
We fear the unknown. I have been in front of audiences, and have asked the dangling open ended question. And, it’s my job to facilitate the discussion to common agreement. When I ask an open ended question, I realize I am putting myself out there, and relinquishing control to the audience to guide the discussion. And, that’s okay. I remind myself to use words like – how, why, and what to start the question, not words like – can, do, or should.
When open ended questions are done well, you gain better buy in, come to true alignment, and generate better business results. To do this well, first know your style, practice like you mean it, and seek the gift of feedback continuously.
Know your style
Be self aware. That means taking a long look in the mirror and assessing how you are with asking the right open ended questions. Think about your current comfort level and ability to ask good questions. A genuine approach starts with an open ended question, then based off of what was said, leads to a series of modified responses and customized questions. How often do your peers, managers, and friends compliment your ability to ask good questions? How often do they pause to think about what you have asked? Good open ended questions require thought from the audience.
Practice like you mean it
If you have some work to do, as most of us do, practice is recommended. In writing this, I actually almost wrote three close ended questions. It requires focus. Role play, although it seems unauthentic, is a very helpful tool to practice. Mock up a few scenarios with your team about popular issues with your audience, and have at it. Remind the team they are in a safe place where there is trust, and we are all there to help each other. Pair team members up, and role play in front of a group, and ask for feedback following. Another trick is to record live, everyday interactions with your audience via camera, and let team members view for themselves. Talk about holding yourself accountable. When you see it for yourself, it’s hard to deny what you need to work on. Make goals for yourself to improve, like a number of open ended questions you want to ask a day or a week, and track your results. You’ll be surprised what focus can do.
Seek the gift of feedback
If you choose to role play, see the real live recording, set goals, or another form of practice, make sure to seek real feedback. Ask the people you trust the most. A good open ended question like – “So, I am working on asking better questions, and value your input on my ability to ask good, open ended questions, I welcome your feedback” – works just fine. Just be sure to ask a good open ended question when you do it. And, the key with feedback and asking any good question is the pause. Wait at least seven seconds before you further clarify the question or speak at all. It takes that much time for someone to think and respond. Give the audience time, and be patient. It can be awkward at first, but the more you do it, the more natural it becomes. Ask the question, mentally pause, count to seven, and then help clarify if necessary. Most importantly, let them be heard.
Good questioning takes time. Literally. As with any goal, be self aware to start, practice like you mean it, and then seek feedback to continuously improve. Good leaders notice stronger relationships with their teams and customers, and better business outcomes as a result.