Create a place where answers fit
We learn through others. From the author of a book, a teacher, a friend, a colleague. Even when learning from experience, when facing a challenge, advancing a project, even in failure, there is always someone around, teaching us something or who’s behaviour or deeds we can glean some new insight from.
Knowing this, it’s no surprise that we should often learn in conversation with others. They say “the best way to learn is to teach,” which can usually be understood to mean that in the process of organizing your thoughts to explain something you know, you discover more; you progress, you learn yourself. It is much the same way with questions, formulating one to draw out a good answer, is a form of learning and, of course, so is the answer itself.
Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question — you have to want to know — in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.
Curiosity is one of the most useful ‘skills’ to have and develop, it’s how you can be a lifelong learner and keep advancing in your work and interests. And, as Ian Sanders put it; “All it takes is a commitment to ask questions, to explore new possibilities, to embark on a journey of discovery.” Be open to the new, be humble, don’t hesitate to say “I don’t know,” take notes, sketch, write, share. Cultivate the three types of curiosity; diversive, epistemic, and empathic.
Finally, is empathic curiosity. This curiosity makes us wonder about the thoughts and feelings of other people. Empathic curiosity is a conscious practice. As Leslie said, “Diversive curiosity might make you wonder what a person does for a living; empathic curiosity makes you wonder why they do it.”
It’s only by being truly curious, open and empathic that you can come up with the best questions and truly benefit from the answers. More from Paul Jun: “To stay curious, we must be fascinated by our own ignorance. We must realize and admit all that we don’t know and be eager to fill the missing gaps with knowledge.”
The art, and acceptance of, asking questions should be something we all think about and work on. In today’s workplaces, there is an emphasis on developing critical thinking, on being creative and innovative, on becoming better collaborators. All of these can be accelerated by asking good questions. In fact, it’s essential. Challenge the established and think critically by probing and questioning; to create something new, understand the existing; to collaborate, understand who you are working with.
The quality of both work and learning depend on asking the right questions and linking with the most relevant nodes in the network!
And yet, questioning broadly is still something that is frowned upon in some workplaces and a skill that atrophies as we get older.
In a recent poll of more than 200 of our clients, we found that those with children estimated that 70–80% of their kids’ dialogues with others were comprised of questions. But those same clients said that only 15–25% of their own interactions consisted of questions.
In the face of fast moving work (and world!), the answer should more often be to slow down, to properly assess the situation and work on the right solution, not the quick or self-evident one. Let’s look at some approaches to better questioning.
Ask open, probing questions
Don’t ask yes or no questions, make them open ended, leave room for others to tell you more, to expand and perhaps to go in unexpected directions. Full, meaningful answers come from open ended questions, closed questions often result in one word answers.
- Do not use closed-ended questions when you want meaningful answers. These questions can bring a conversation to a screeching halt. One word answers can make it difficult to build any kind of conversation or relationship. Closed-ended questions typically provide inadequate answers as well.
- Ask open-ended questions when you want detailed explanations to build off of.
- Use open-ended questions to expand the conversation after asking a closed-ended question, to gather a fact or one word answer. Take the fact or one word answer, and build an entire conversation of open-ended questions around it.
Ask the right type of questions
In relearning the art of asking questions it’s important to know what you are asking for and consider various types of questions:
Clarifying questions help you better understand the situation, get the lay of the land, make sure everyone is starting from a known common base.
Adjoining questions can broaden your perspective. Instead of just thinking of the basic situation, task or topic, expand your view.
Funneling questions help you direct the conversation and dig deeper, understand some of the assumptions, decisions, and data underlying the initial answers.
Elevating questions “raise broader issues and highlight the bigger picture. They help you zoom out.”
Good questions create good dialogue
It’s useful to get better at questions, to develop some tricks and habits, to be prepared, but in the end you are talking with other people, always remember that it’s a dialogue and think of the other.
Try to frame your questions so that they empower and create a safe space, without judgment or accusations. Create inclusiveness and connection to reconsider positions and avoid bias. Challenge assumptions, keep an open mind and try to gain better understanding. Try to foster breakthrough thinking by challenging the status quo by asking “why.”
Consider the 5 Whys
When faced with a problem or thorny question, it’s a good idea to use a simple but powerful technique; the 5 Whys. It was originally developed at Toyota as part of their problem-solving training.
It’s just as it sounds: A discussion of the unexpected event or challenge that follows one train of thought to its logical conclusion by asking “Why?” 5 times to get to the root of what happened.
It can be used through a structured process, with responsibilities, next steps, and diffusion of conclusions, as in the Buffer process above. Or it can be one person, digging through each ‘Why’ removing a layer, surfacing new information, getting closer to the root of the problem.
Start with How
At e180 we start the discovery process of every project by framing it around a question, starting with “How might we… ?” The goal of this ‘trick’ is to immediately start thinking of the problem and what we are trying to do, instead of starting from an imagined solution.
As Jeroen de Ruijter explains, you can also use a similar formula for creativity and problem-solving:
Asking ‘How can we…?’ questions is a great approach for quick and dirty problem-solving. By formulating your ‘unwanted situation’ into a ‘constructive challenge’ (while keeping your desired outcome in mind), you turn your little everyday frustrations into fruitful opportunities.
[G]ood listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking.
— Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, What Great Listeners Actually Do
Now that you’ve dug through what you know and what you don’t know now, asked some incredible questions … listen. Really listen. Actively, deeply, generously.
Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman analyzed data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches, they then looked at the most effective listeners and identified the differences between great and average:
Dialog. “Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog, rather than a one-way ‘speaker versus hearer’ interaction. The best conversations were active.”
Support. The best listeners create a safe space for conversation, they make the other person feel supported and convey confidence in the other person.
Cooperation. The conversation and feedback flows in both directions, the great listeners are not in a competitive stance, looking for errors or gaps in reasoning. They try to help rather than win an argument. (This does not prevent disagreement or challenges.)
Suggestions. People often complain about someone jumping in conversations trying to ‘solve’ their problems. Surprisingly, this same trait of making suggestions is praised in the best listeners. Truly listening and then suggesting appropriately is well received; being silent and suggesting is not seen as credible.
Be Bold & Generous
Contrary to what the cult of productivity, efficiency, and speed might have us believe, taking time for inquiry and understanding unlocks immense value. Cultivate your curiosity, be bold and thorough in your investigations, and most importantly, be generous in your listening.
Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability — a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions.