How to ask the right questions
Communicating effectively with prospects, clients and colleagues relies on asking the right things in the right way, advises Alison Hartley.
If I had a pound for every time my children asked me ‘why?’, I’d be a millionaire. The question belies a curiosity and genuine desire for understanding but when it forces me to explain my sometimes beleaguered adult logic, I have to think differently.
In business most of us could do with getting better at asking questions in a childlike manner. Our research suggests that asking insightful questions is the number one business development skill in professional services. Why? Because, by doing it, you’re demonstrating respect to your clients by taking time to learn about their world. Many of us love the chance to talk about what is important to us, and if you give other people the chance, they will love you for it. What do you get from it? A deeper, richer understanding of your client and therefore, a deeper, richer understanding of how you might be able to help them in the future.
Asking great questions is extremely powerful, but only if it’s done with integrity. Questioning can be manipulative, and if the client feels this is the case, trust will be broken. Children ask questions because they genuinely want to know. Be childlike.
Good questioning skills are invaluable in many business environments - recruitment, appraisals, engaging with your team – the ability to ask great questions will help you be seen as an advanced communicator. In business development, if you do nothing else, ask great questions.
When you are networking – get over the fear of what to say, or how awkward you feel – by asking questions. When you meet potential clients, explore their world.
When you are offering potential solutions, check that you are on track. When you are executing the project, ask if it’s going well? When the project is finished, ask for feedback.
Having said that, questioning is a great skill - it is astonishing to see how few people really take time to hone their technique. This is particularly true of TV interviewers, who are so bad they make me cringe. If you want advice on how NOT to ask questions, watch most chat shows, sports interviews or news reports.
What do they do wrong?
- Closed questions, which can be answered with a yes or no. If you get an uncooperative interviewee, that’s what they’ll answer. I vividly remember a BBC reporter interviewing Andre Agassi at Wimbledon, and he simply answered yes or no to her rambling, closed questions. Embarrassing for everyone. Some interviewees might give a little more, but it’s up to the questioner to ask better questions.
- Leading questions – “do you think that…” “You must believe that…”
- Multiple questions – there are so many parts to the question that only one will get answered.
- “Show-off” questions – all about the interviewer trying to prove his or her knowledge of the subject.
The key to good, open, exploratory questions is the shorter the better and to start them with a W (what, where, when, why?) and the occasional H (how?).
The other thing to keep in mind is TED:
- Tell me more about…
Throughout my life and career, I can think of some fantastic people who have helped me by asking great questions. Some have been managers or colleagues, who coached and mentored me. Some have been friends, who helped me through difficult times by asking questions and helping me move forward. Some have been potential suppliers who, through skilful questioning, helped me understand my organisation even better; who made me feel I had a potential trusted adviser who could help me address my challenges. They are memorable because they asked and listened.
Alison Hartley is a consultant at PACE Partners International.