StupidQuestionAsk a stupid question, by Andrew Griffiths
Questions are an essential tool of communication in any situation. They can be extremely powerful and can lead individuals and organisations to achieve dramatic improvements, find much-needed solutions, and introduce world-leading innovations. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, where you come from or what you do in life, if you develop your questioning skills you will achieve and gain more.
A good question can transform the course of a personal or professional relationship; it can open doors, ignite creative thinking, instil trust, establish dialogue – it can make people think about what’s possible and achievable. Just think what followed after the 52 year-old travelling salesman, Ray Kroc, the man behind the fast-food chain, McDonalds, asked himself, “Where can I get a good hamburger on the road?” Then wonder at the phenomenal scientific advances that have been made since James Watson and Francis Crick queried, “What might DNA look like in a 3D form?” Behind most ‘Eureka’ moments, we do not find the great inventors, researchers and scientists suddenly unveiling the bright light of truth, so much as finding the right question to ask that will lead to it.
In this book I want to demonstrate to you that you can greatly improve your ability to ask questions and that doing so will benefit your performance and prospects. It will improve your leadership ability, your selling techniques, the way you communicate with customers and colleagues. And it can strengthen relationships with friends and family.
My argument is that good questioning skills will empower you and that they can transform your confidence, ability and results. Why am I so sure of this? Because I have seen it work. As a business consultant and trainer for more than twenty five years I’ve had the privilege to see things at the coalface of production, in the heat of the boardroom, and in just about every working environment in very diverse organisations. During this time, as a negotiator, trouble-shooter, consultant and trainer I’ve learned to observe, analyse, reflect and, above all, to ask questions and then listen very carefully. I am humbled by how effective this process can be and I am passionate in my belief that everyone can gain immeasurably by asking better questions.
It would be a marvellous thing if we could all spend our lives asking brilliant questions with the result that these lead to equally brilliant solutions. That is not easy or possible even for the brightest among us. But what we can and I think must do is to continue to exercise our questioning abilities constantly because in that way we will obtain the confidence and ease to ask some very powerful questions sometimes – and perhaps even some brilliant ones. At the same time we will develop a communications tool which is a key we can use to open doors to understanding and to clarity. How long can any worthwhile business, personal or professional relationship survive without understanding and clarity?
So when we learn to feel at ease asking a few challenging questions – or when we know how to take our time to ask a customer or client all about their situation: why do they need us, our products or services and how can we help them to achieve the best possible result – that’s when we will be valued because we are offering proper service. In that way we don’t just sell something and have done with it; we make long term relationships, with friends, clients and customers. Questions can do that.
Or when we, as leaders in business, families or communities, start to understand that we are not just there to provide ready answers, instant decisions, solutions and knowledge, but that a big part of our job is to ask questions – and invite our partners, colleagues and friends to ask us questions – that’s when continuous improvement becomes a reality and when motivation and morale build up a full head of steam. One good question can travel all the way through an organisation shaking up everything in its path – I’ve seen it happen and watched the productivity and profits grow.
Only by questioning – and by questioning people in such a way that they trust us and feel comfortable with the process – will we truly understand what our customers want, our suppliers need, our business colleagues feel. By doing this we will achieve clarity, a sense of purpose, motivation and direction. By doing this we will also have a vital tool that not only helps us to understand other people and what their real agendas are, but also to understand ourselves, where we are going, how much we are achieving and what we can improve upon. The point is that a big part of the ability to ask questions well is, of course, to be able to ask ourselves good questions too. While much of the practical information and instruction in this book is geared to direct communication within groups and on a one-to-one basis, the importance of self-review through questioning cannot be overstated.
Here are a few reasons why questions are so important:
Questions open doors to ideas and creativity
How many times have you attended a meeting when you have not been engaged with what has been said and when the direction of the meeting has been mostly about providing updates? How much more interesting would the meeting have been if you had been engaged because a good question was asked, perhaps about a system or process or a way of improving an aspect of business? Questions will open doors that often people do not realise are there. They make us think at a different, slightly deeper level and this is an energising and empowering process. In a group situation a question might fetch a poor answer from the first person who responds but this will often trigger a much better answer from the next person who offers a suggestion. Questions encourage creativity and they promote the sharing and exploring of ideas. Otherwise it’s just you sitting there and someone else doing all the talking – which is a perfect way to engender a low level of engagement. And the questions asked do not have to be inspired or brilliant. We can all ask something as simple as “What does that mean?” or “What have we missed?” and the ball will always start rolling.
Questions help us to achieve clarity
The speed of business exchanges and general rush to get things done quickly affects us all and often leads to poor outcomes. The reason is that general muddle and lack of mutual understanding will too often lead to poor or ill-thought out decisions. By making it a rule that we question, listen and respond to each other this problem very quickly disappears. Only by questioning our customers, our bosses, our colleagues will we know what they are thinking, what they need, what the purpose of our assignments really are and what direction we need to travel. Lack of clarity leads to crossed-wires, poor collaboration, and the tendency to shelve problems or avoid taking actions, mostly because of uncertainty or confusion about objectives. On the other hand, asking questions will shine a light on purpose and tie energy and action together. Everyone will know what to do, why they are doing it and when to get it done.
Questions act as a catalyst for change and innovation
Some questions are really powerful. They may be as simple as “What are we trying to do with this?” or they may be highly focused such as “How do we ensure that this product is going to sell?” These are the questions that create breakthroughs. They ensure the listener will sit up and take part. They will stimulate reflective discussions and they will focus enquiry and usually evoke more important questions as they lead to changes in the way things are done. Sometimes the outcomes of these questions will be the establishment of entire new organisations within the company, much-needed restructuring, a changed business model or an entirely new product. The process starts with a powerful question that needs to be asked.
Questions empower us
By developing your questioning muscle you will become more engaged in your work, and more in control of the relationships that are important to you. You will have greater self-awareness and an increased sense of purpose and motivation. In effect, improved questioning skills, and better understanding of the value and power of certain types of questions, will empower you. If you, like a great many people, pick up information in all kinds of ways but seldom by asking directly, you will be surprised by how much you will be empowered by developing your questioning ability.
More than this, your empowerment will be self-sustaining and will develop continually if you actively practise questioning skills. You will become more interested and more engaged so that you will think more and develop more clarity about the things you may have taken for granted. Even at the simplest level, you will be more capable of gaining what you want in life or your career.
Questions bring assumptions to the surface
A major source of breakdown in communication occurs where an assumption has been made. In customer relations it happens all the time; we assume that this is what the customer wants – and if they want this they must also want that. It is easy to base our decision about what a customer needs on what we assume he needs, rather than asking just a few questions to check out what is actually required. It’s a classic mistake and causes endless frustration and wasted effort. In negotiations making assumptions is also a real danger. Your party might think you know all the facts, have most of the cards on your side of the table and know what the other party’s agenda is but you make these assumptions at your peril. You can only check the position in one way and that is by asking. Even an unclear answer, usually combined with body language indicating some tension or discomfort with the subject, will be revealing and will alert you to find out more or to tread warily.
Questions can be impressive
If you ask a good question you will find that this is generally more impressive to your bosses and peer group than the answer you elicit – even if it is a good answer. Asking questions shows you are committed to your work and to business projects and that you actively seek to improve outcomes. And when you ask a good question of a customer or client they will feel you are very much on their case.
Questions can turn negative into positive situations
When you’re trying to fix a problem and all you do, figuratively speaking, is stick your joint heads under the basin and jostle for some room to work the spanner, this can be debilitating and pointless. Constant focus on the problem and how to fix it is wearying and it can breed a kind of hopelessness and desire to put the tools down and find something more worthwhile to do. But by turning the focus from what the problem is and how to fix it to what the possibilities are that the situation offers us, we can rapidly convert a negative to a positive outcome. We perhaps need to ask “What’s the possibility we see in this situation?” or “Okay, we can’t do it that way, so how else can we do it?”
Questions show consideration and interest
By asking questions of others you are demonstrating that you are interested and that you care. Questioning shows consideration and will make your listener feel valued. Quite apart from developing your understanding of a situation, or providing a broader picture, this will build the trust and goodwill in any relationship.
Questions will drive continuous improvement
However good your product or service may be it is an unwritten rule of business success that continuous improvement should be built into the programme. We can always do things better and once we have a product or service just right for the market there are still many external factors to which we must adapt – so we are constantly tuning and hopefully improving our ways of doing things. What happens if we do not pursue a course of continuous improvement? The answer can be applied at different levels. At the level of a business, competitors will get to the market first with better products and services. In the larger scheme of things if people do not try to continuously improve they will not fit into the new world. Careers are changing and industries are changing and they will continue to do so and the rapidity of change means that the next great invention is just round the corner. Through a combination of personal and business goals and through the motivation to improve continuously we are always positioned to adapt to this environment.
Of great importance, a culture of open communication, in which everyone is actively encouraged to ask questions, will strengthen the business’ drive to improve continuously. This is a core principle for success. If everyone is told, in effect, to do their jobs and keep their heads down they are not likely to have much interest in the way they are contributing to the business and they are unlikely to think about ways of improving it. In such a business – and they do exist – all the driving has to be done by the leaders. That way of doing things is difficult to sustain. Very often, as the best leaders are fully aware, the greatest knowledge about systems, techniques, particular customers and suppliers, business approaches – and often the greatest talent and skill – lies with other people in the organisation. It is in everyone’s interest to channel and pool that wealth of knowledge, skill and experience by encouraging people to ask questions and give feedback.
I am just skimming the surface of a wonderful subject – there is much more to tell you. I am very confident that you will find many other good reasons why skilful questioning can transform lives and businesses.
Over the course of years of business experience I’ve learned not just how hugely powerful questions can be but also that they come in many and various types. There are probing, challenging, leading, framing, clarifying and many other types of question and they all have their place and distinct value in communication. Once we understand what these types are and how we can use them, we are on the road to empowerment because with this understanding will come proper and better use. There are good and bad ways of asking questions and there are also good and bad times for asking certain types of question. People often carry an inner pocketful of well used ‘habit’ questions and all too often they do not really listen to the answers given to the questions they ask.
So in this book I’m going to bring some checks and balances into the process. I’m going to demonstrate what makes a good question or a bad question; when to ask different types of question most effectively; and how to ask questions to have the most impact and influence on the course of a conversation, a sales process, or a discussion with a customer or colleague.
There are questions for particular situations just as there are horses for courses but whether you are asking a very simple closed question – one that demands a yes/no answer – or venturing to ask a slightly more inquisitive question, or actually asking a powerful question that could be the catalyst for significant change, the important factor is that you ask.
A major purpose of this book is not just to make you think about good and bad ways of asking questions but to get you asking more questions in more situations so that questioning becomes a thoroughly ingrained habit. When you develop that muscle you are developing a really empowering skill and a highly valuable communications tool.
Like any aspect of communication, the ability to ask questions well is one that we can improve when we understand the range and power of the tool itself. I intend to explain this range and power and provide you with a process for practising and developing your skill in using it, naturally and easily.