Better Questions, Better Answers, Better Business

There may be no bad questions, but there are bad ways to ask a question. 

And badly asked questions get you bad answers, and bad answers are bad for relationships and really bad for business. 

But, good questions create good dialogue. And good dialogue creates good relationships. Since relationships are crucial business assets, it makes sense to learn to build them by bettering the questions that connect us and build social capital. 

It’s simple, if you want better answers, ask better questions.
— Lisa Bourdon

5 Ways to Ask a Good Question

To better your questions, consider these methods of enquiry (lightly adapted from Fast Company’s How to Ask Better Questions): 

1. Ask Short and Simple Questions

Keep your questions to 10 words or less. Hone in on what you really want to know, and then ask the question directly. A short and simple question allows the person to quickly understand the question and give a reasonable and reasoned reply. If you need more information after the answer, ask another short and simple question. 

2. Ask “What” Questions

The best questions often start with the word what. “What” questions are open ended and can’t be answered by a simple yes or no so they encourage dialogue. They are invitations to information-rich answers. 

Consider these questions:

  • “What do you want to do next?” vs. “Why did this happen?”

  • “What else is possible?” vs. “Is this your best idea?”

  • Or my favorite in the wake of a mistake, big or small, “What can we learn from this experience?” vs. “Why did you let this happen?”

3. Ask Non-accusatory Questions to Dodge Defensiveness

“Why is your team missing the target dates, again?”

If you are cruising for an argument, ask away. But if you would like helpful insight and real data to solve the problem, then think about open, non-accusatory ways of phrasing your questions. Questions focused on why the other person isn’t meeting expectations forces that person into a defensive or reactive stance, and this closes the door to honest dialogue about obstacles and goals. 

4. Ask Questions That Empower 

Instead of asking “Why is your team missing the target dates?” ask, “How do you feel about the project’s success thus far?” 

These types of questions are people-empowering. 

Empowering questions don’t sound like an accusation, and they give the person space to share thoughts and feelings and have an honest conversation about goals and errors. This type of question conveys respect and instills a sense of strength and efficacy. Also, empowering questions encourage a person to use cognition and problem solving skills. 

Further, asking the manager of a stalled project, “What will move this project forward?” creates ownership of the solution. 

5. Ask Any Question: Assumptions and Bias 

Any question is better than an assumption. We may think that we ask plenty of questions, though if you try counting your questions one day, you may be surprised by how few you ask.

The most common mistake leaders make (all of us, really) is not asking a question because we think we already know the answer. For example, instead of asking a right-for-the-job employee if she is interested in leaving Atlanta and taking the new post in Japan, the employer might assume that she won’t be willing to take an international assignment because she has children. 

The question to ask yourself to get behind any of your assumptions - before talking to an employee, colleague (or anyone, really) -  is, “What am I assuming in this scenario?” And in meetings with colleagues, consider asking, “What are we assuming in this scenario?”

Difficult situations and awkward moments in business often result from our unrealized biases (and we all have them). Leaders can expand everyone’s thinking by first asking a ‘have you ever’ question. Asking “Have you ever considered an international post?” will create good dialogue, good relationship and possibly a new post in Japan for the right-for-the-job employee and her family. 

Now that you know five easy ways to ask better questions, I have a question for you. What better-question-asking tip will you use first?  

Allie Rice