When you’re working and collaborating with clients, suppliers, colleagues, team members, what questions do you hear? What questions do you ask? Most of us don’t give it too much thought – it’s just a conversation, right? Well, yes and no.
Yes, I hope you have two-way conversations with these people.
No, asking the right questions requires more thought than a casual chat.
Questions are the Swiss Army Knife of workplace communications – handy in all kinds of situations, provided they’re used wisely and with care. The subject of questions comes up in several Zoomly workshops; particularly ‘How to influence and persuade’ and ‘How to communicate for clarity’. We can all benefit from expanding our repertoire of questions, for all kinds of workplace conversations.
One of the best training programmes I attended in my previous career focused on asking the right questions. All of us taking part found it challenging and yet highly valuable. We left with a different approach – and an expanded repertoire of questions. The first thing we learned was the power of open questions that literally open up the dialogue, over closed questions that narrow down the possible answers. I realised I’d become lazy, asking stock questions when getting a brief, for example. Most of my questions focused on what I thought we needed to know and they were closed, not open.
Consider the difference between these questions:
Is it similar to the last promotion we did for you? vs What worked – and what didn’t – in the last promotion?
Does this beat the competition’s offer? vs How is this different to or better than the competition?
Will you do this in Q3? vs When does the data suggest would be the best time?
Do you have the same budget? vs What budget do you have in mind?
The first (closed) question in each example can simply be answered with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. A longer answer may be forthcoming, but does it expand our understanding? Probably not. That’s because our questions aren’t prompting people to think; instead they’re merely seeking confirmation.
Are closed questions bad? Not at all! Closed questions are invaluable for clarifying, checking understanding and summarising. Aim for a balance of open and closed questions to sustain dialogue whilst sticking to the point.
How will you take action? Try these steps.
- Next time you’re getting a brief from a client, your manager or a colleague, ask some open questions to get the conversation going – and going two-way.
- When you’re in a meeting, notice the questions others ask. What distinguishes the questions that work well, developing the conversation and getting more participation? What questions don’t yield as much – and why?
- Above all, listen to people’s answers – don’t ‘reload’ (plan your next question in your head) whilst they’re speaking – it’s not an interrogation. More on listening in this post.
You may find this post useful: ’20 questions to help you negotiate – and one to avoid’