In a knowledge economy, your ability to create value is in direct proportion to your ability to ask a good question.
Let’s be honest: You’re not really interested in getting more information. What you want is insight. Insight fuels your ability to make better decisions.
Asking poor questions creates two negative consequences for the price of one:
- You harvest low quality information.
- You risk annoying the person who you’re asking.
My friend Jessica shared this story about Summer, her very bright and outgoing 12 year old daughter.
Summer’s graduating from elementary school this year, so we’ve been visiting different potential middle schools. After a one-on-one interview with the head of admissions at one school, Summer came out of the interview really upset. I asked her what was wrong.
Ms. Smith (the head of school) asked me “What do your friends think about you?”
What a weird question. I told Ms. Smith I didn’t know.
Ms. Smith said, “Come on, sure you do.”
I didn’t. How would I know what my friends think about me?
People often give an answer that corresponds to the quality of the question asked. Ms. Smith would have been better served by asking a different question: “If I was to speak to one of your friends and ask them about you, what words or characteristics do you think they’d use to describe you?”
Asking good open ended questions takes a surprising amount of skill.
This week, I spent two days working with a group of salespeople to improve their questioning and active listening skills. In ‘classroom mode’, everyone gets it: they have no trouble seeing the difference between open and close ended questions. They seem to understand when you ask a closed-ended question you get a much more limited answer than asking an open one.
However, the cool calm of ‘classroom mode’ didn’t survive the test. It quickly faded when placed in a simulated role-play, where the salespeople had to (in real time) meet with a sales prospect. Their theoretical “knowing” didn’t translate into real world “doing”. The salespeople started talking a lot more and listening a lot less.
Why does this happen? Why is it so hard for people to ask a good question, then shut up and truly listen? Two causes jump out:
Fear of the unknown. When you really inquire, you have to be curious, and let go of your own agenda of where the conversation is going. This letting go creates so much anxiety for some people, they have a hard time doing it.
Desire for closure. Being curious means having patience. Open ended questions mean opening things up, and many people prefer to close things down quickly. (Even if they are closing down the wrong thing.)
Finding the right open-ended question in the heat of the moment can be a difficult skill to master. What if there was an easier way?
Instead of trying to craft the perfect question, consider using this super-simple alternative: the TED technique.
TED is an acronym, short for:
Basically, what you need to do is start your sentences with one of the three TED words. By doing this, you replace questions with a probing prompt. These prompts (by the nature of TED) are specifically designed to get your interviewee to talk. For example:
- Tell me about your growth goals.
- Explain what your biggest challenge is.
- Describe what success would look like.
Use TED, and you’ll spend less time and energy on your questions, and more focus on getting your answers. TED can help you convert information into insight.
What other techniques have you found work well to gain insight? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.