The Art of Asking Questions

Mar 24 • Ilona Nurmela • Comments: 0
Do we ask enough questions? Or are we geared towards making assumptions as well as making ourselves understood by persuading, explaining, arguing? What was the last good question you asked someone that made a difference?

I’ll start - the following questions helped to make room for something important in a few lives:
- You can do all your boss does and you do most of the things for him, why don’t you start your own business? - the person went and started her own law firm;

- You say you book time daily to deal with in-depth analysis and keep the rest for emergencies, but lately the emergencies seem to take over, what if you booked a little more time to deal with in-depth analysis each day - how much more time would you need to book? - the super-efficient person was able to clear her backlog in one week by refocusing her time priorities;

- Now that you know that x pays all of his bills on the 2nd Friday of every month and that’s why the payment date to you keeps shifting later and later and that x is not doing this as financial blackmail, then provided x pays you before the 15th when your loan payment is due, would that be an acceptable arrangement? - alimony payments between former spouses got sorted and at least this financial issue was taken off the dispute table.

The question a good Samaritan asked me that changed MY life in October 2013 was:

- What are you most afraid of regarding starting your own business that has made you sit on the fence for the past two years?

My answer was - fear that the things I love doing and am good at will not be able to earn me a living. One and a half years later, I’m earning a reasonable living (for a starting entrepreneur) from two out of three business streams, have acquired a few regular clients and have a lot of plans in development. The best bit? None of it seems like work because I love what I do and I use my strengths to help people. All because of a good question asked at an opportune time.

Back to the art of asking questions.

Asking good questions is something coaching, negotiation and mediation all have in common. To be quite honest, communication with others - at least mutually satisfying communication - involves taking a genuine interest in another human being, doesn’t it?

Ask yourself, when you communicate with someone, are you always genuinely interested in what they have to say? Or are you simply trying to get your own point across, to BE understood? Is it a two-way street or a one-way road?

Do you remember the last insightful or inspiring or thought-provoking conversation you had?

WHERE did you have that conversation, in what context? By conversation I mean any interaction between at least two people, whether this is a 1:1 coaching session or a dispute resolution session or negotiating a deal with multiple parties at the table.

WHO did you talk to? Was it a person that you didn’t expect to inspire you, e.g. someone you would label as “an enemy”? Or was it someone you expected to help you think?

Your conversation turned insightful because you ASKED something or someone asked YOU something, right?

WHAT was the question?

WHY did you/they ask the question in the first place? Was something unclear? Were you genuinely interested how they can see the world so differently from you? How they can mean something completely different, even if they use the same words as you do? Were you genuinely interested after their constant ‘no-s’ what options they have envisaged for a mutually beneficial solution?

HOW, with what tone of voice did you ask your question? Slyly? In a friendly manner, perhaps even joking? Or in a hostile manner, hoping this would kick them into action?

Was it a CLOSED/leading or an OPEN question? Open questions let people speak freely and it is always an opportunity for them to give you more information, whereas closed questions limit the answers to yes/no/maybes. Depending on whether the person liked your tone or what you were insinuating with your question, you might or might not get an explanation together with the yes/no/maybe.

After the person answered your question, did you make a conclusion FOR them out loud or did you LET them reach the conclusion themselves? If you can master the latter technique, we are getting to influencing heights, in which case beware to use your powers for good and not evil.

Did you take into account the information intake preference of the other person when you were asking them questions? It is quite pointless to ask someone visual “how would they FEEL” if everything turned out perfectly, just like someone kinaesthetic or auditory would be puzzled by a question “tell, me what do you SEE happening, should the ideal scenario play out?’ If you ask based on your preference, the other person might not understand you at all. Visuals like pictures and respond to “see, look, imagine, etc”, while auditory people like phone communication and respond to “listen, sounds like, etc”. Kinaesthetics might seem too touchy-feely to some by clapping on shoulders or hugging or shaking hands longer than others but they do this because they need to “have a feel” how this partnership would work out. Just like there are no pure social styles of communication (driver-expressive-analytical-amiable), we have all learnt to use mixed information intake preferences where video-audio-kinaesthetic (VAK) preferences are concerned. Considering that roughly 60% of us are visual and 20% auditory, then if you use pictures and sounds in your presentations/communication, you have an 80% chance of getting your information across in a way that the other person understands.

WHEN exactly did you realise the conversation had acquired the quality that you appreciated? Was it when you saw you were getting through to the other side, that they finally understood the benefits of what you were proposing? Was it when you saw your client reach a deeper understanding about themselves and how to proceed? Please note that I purposefully didn’t ask about what YOU were getting out of it. It’s not about making YOU feel good about yourself, it’s about getting through to others, about surfing in their world view.

WHAT’S the whole POINT of asking questions, you might ask. Besides getting information. Persuading others is a much better technique to impart your views to someone, some might say, so what if it’s a unilateral monologue.

The art of communication lies not in what YOU say, but in what others HEAR. (This is because we all have our philosophical maps of how the universe works and our individual beliefs/values/filters, which makes us translate the information we receive and reach our own conclusions that translate into actions. Off the same set of information two people can reach completely different conclusions and take very different actions as well.) Getting information is good, but what good is it to you, if you cannot make yourself understood? The same goes for persuasion (giving information).

I suggest we all take into account how OTHERS like to get their information and learn the usefulness of ASKing questions. Lots of them. Especially when you see or feel you are not getting through. Or when someone tells you out right things are not going to plan.

Why should you do that? The question is - do you want to be understood, get along, have less conflicts in your life? If your answer is ‘no’, don’t try anything new, stay within your cosy comfort zone, there is no shame in knowing and doing what you like. But IF, just IF you like trying new things…then…why not? :)

P.S. Those that noticed the highlighted WHO-WHAT-WHY-HOW-WHERE-WHEN-s - yes, these are the (neuro)logical levels that are helpful to check off when you are getting to the bottom of things - whether it is a solution you seek or asking the right question. :)

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