Not Getting the Right Answers? Try Asking the Right Questions

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Nov 29, 2018

Humans are curious by nature. At work, it’s normal for HR professionals, managers, and team members to ask and answer hundreds of questions a day — and the way we ask and answer questions is important for our projects’ success.

In fact, a recent report published in the Harvard Business Review made a case for curiosity as “vital to an organization’s performance.” Interestingly, a survey discussed in the report found that 70% of employees (from a pool of 3,000 participants from various industries) face barriers to asking more questions at work.

How do you ask questions?

For how important questions are, few of us dedicate any attention to developing a technique for asking them. At work, especially, asking questions can put us in a precarious position: Ask too many and you worry clients or your colleagues will think you don’t know what you’re doing. Or maybe you worry you’ll offend them by asking about something they see as “too basic.” On the other hand, ask too few questions, and you may miss out on promising discoveries or lurking assumptions.

And even when you ask the right amount of questions, are you asking the right questions?

Are you framing your questions to stakeholders and colleagues in a way that encourages the most informative, accurate, complete answer?

This post is all about the art of asking the right questions — and avoiding the types of questions that don’t help anyone get what they need. Below, I’ll share the best practices I’ve found most useful in my career managing teams, clients and projects.

1. Distinguish between open and closed questions—use a combination

Open-ended questions are important because they lead to more than a one-word answer. They tend to start with where, what, when, where, how, which and how. Open questions are great questions to use to gain an understanding of the bigger picture, as they give you broader and better quality information. They can help the person answering to crystallize their thoughts.

Closed-ended questions are important, too. They ensure a very clear and narrow focus and usually prompt one-word answers. They often begin with could, should, would, have you and do you. These questions are important when you’re ratifying facts, clarifying a point or providing some direction to the information being gathered.

2. Avoid multiple or linked questions

Multiple or linked questions look like this:

Have you shared your meeting notes with the design team? Any feedback from the design team on that, or updates on the bug I pointed out this morning?

There’s too much being asked, too quickly, about topics that require thinking about very different parts of a person’s day. It’s easy to get confused, overwhelmed, or to forget to address all of the topics.

Of course, there are times when you need to ask multiple questions on a topic, like the questions to ask in the initial project phases when you’re doing discovery. Even in a question-heavy session make sure you’re giving time for the other person to respond after each question instead of linking them together.

Keep it simple and avoid asking multiple questions or linked questions at once. Just ask one thing at a time.

3. Use “Why” questions sparingly

Why questions are useful when thinking about the big picture — strategic goals, visions, direction. In other cases, however, asking why questions can sound critical. People can feel challenged or blamed when being asked a why question, as if their decisions are being called into question.

You can still get similar answers to that question by choosing a different way of asking it. Instead of “Why did you do that?”  try something like

  • “Tell me about…”
  • “What do you think are the reasons for…”

4. Watch out for leading or loaded questions

Leading or loaded questions will often begin with something like “Don’t you think that…?” These questions suggest an answer or your inclination so they don’t really elicit honest feedback from the person you’re asking.

Instead of: “Don’t you think that these graphics are better than the other ones?” (Which primes your team member to respond with yes.), try asking: “Do you have any thoughts on these graphics when compared with the other ones?”

You can find a few more examples of leading questions in this post by Survey Monkey (a survey building company) explaining the types of questions that give you bad data.

5. Question completely

It’s no good just asking someone how long something will take in isolation. As they provide you with a timeline estimate, you need to interrogate how they came to the number. You’ll often find that as you begin to tease out the details of their estimate, they’ll remember things they forgot to include and you’ll begin to get an understanding of dependencies around individual tasks.

When someone has given you an estimate for the duration of a task, you need to question it — be friendly, but thorough. Ask them if their estimate includes time for revisions, feedback or QA.

6. Voice your understanding of their answer

Once you’ve asked your question, are you making sure that your understanding of the answer actually reflects what they said? Repeat in your own words what you heard to make sure you’ve understood properly. Simply say something like, “So, to confirm my understanding of your answer, it’s…?”

A little bit of follow-up in the moment can feel redundant, but it can eliminate assumptions and confusion down the road.