Here’s the premise:
- Good questions directly lead to greater success in life and career;
- Most people ask bad questions (myself included).
We are constantly solving problems on the job, including making the sale. We need to collect information to solve these problems. How we ask questions greatly influences the answers and our eventual success. Better questions lead to better solutions, faster, leaving more time to accomplish other goals, solve other problems, or recreate.
Time is precious and opportunities are fleeting. Walking down the hall or riding in an elevator with your boss, their boss, or your client is the perfect opportunity to learn and/or impress with a great question. A poorly worded question means a missed opportunity.
In our personal lives, well structured questions lead to better conversations and deeper emotional connection. Fortunately, learning how to better structure questions is not that difficult.
Examples Of Bad Question Techniques
- Ask leading questions;
- Ask multiple-choice questions;
- Pose Yes or No questions when you need information.
When your question goes on and on, the real question gets lost and so will the answer. Rambling is often the sign of nervousness, embarrassment that you don’t know the answer, or lack of forethought about your real question and how to ask it. If you need the answer, don’t be embarrassed to ask the question.
Bad: What’s the best way for me to calculate DSO? Do you want me to use all sales? Over what period? And should I eliminate cash sales? Do I look at the last month or longer? And what about receivables that we haven’t written off by they are really old? And that large contract receivable that the sales person said we should never have booked because of the dispute that emerged only days later?
Good: How do you want me to calculate DSO?
If you ask a leading question, you are not likely to get an honest answer, and therefore you are off-track in getting to your solution. Even if you think you already know the answer or are just seeking confirmation, an objective question makes you look more confident. A leading question can make you look like a condescending jerk.
Bad: What do you think about the ugly sample logos they presented?
Good: What do you think about the sample logos?
Multiple choice questions are appropriate when you truly want the listener to choose from one of the options. But, if you are trying to learn, have a conversation, or interview someone, you lose valuable time with your extended question and tend to limit the responses.
Bad: When you saw the presentation, what captured your attention the most? The graphics and
video? The speaker’s great delivery and humor? The emotional customer testimonials?
Good: When you saw the presentation, what captured your attention?
When you want to learn, you don’t want to ask a closed ended question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Instead, you want to ask an open ended question so the person can share their thoughts and you get information.
Bad: Did you like the movie?
Good: What did you think of that movie?
Top 2 Question Tips
- Stop talking at the question mark;
- H5W: How, who, what, when, where, why. Start with one of these words.
Stopping your question when you get to the question mark is the opposite of rambling or asking a multiple choice question. Too often we are trying to show our knowledge or cover up our lack of knowledge with extended questions. By simply focusing on this one technique of stopping at the question mark, you will start asking better questions.
Bad: Do you have any vacation plans this summer? I know you often go to the mountains, and you have been talking a long time about going to Europe. But, you said you haven’t seen your parents in a long time, so are you going to visit them? And, didn’t you say something about one of your kids maybe having to go to summer school, so will that interfere with plans?
Good: What are your summer vacation plans?
How, who, what, when, where and why has been the staple of reporting since the infancy of journalism. It also turns out to be a better way to ask questions. Start your question with one of these 6 words, and you are more likely to get thoughtful or more revealing answers. Alternatively, journalist Shane Snow says sentences “that begin with is, are, would, should or do you think can limit your answers”. All too often these words result in leading or closed ended questions and an answer of less value.
Bad: Should the government add more laws restricting gun sales?
Good: What do you think of the current laws on gun sales?
When I’m preparing for a meeting or conversation where I know I’ll be asking a lot of questions, I’ll write on a sticky note or in my notebook:
? Stop H5W
I look at this frequently to remind myself to keep my questions in check and start with the right word.
How To Use Questions
Get Conversations Back On Track
Questions can be used for more than just learning and solving problems. Think about the interviews you’ve heard. The guest may start rambling or drift off-topic. You start to lose interest. A skilled interviewer can interject with a good question to get a conversation back on topic without seeming pushy or condescending. You can use this same technique in meetings, phone calls or personal conversations.
We all know that a great way to get buy-in to something is for the person to think it is their idea. A series of questions can get someone to see things from your perspective or arrive at the solution you desire. You don’t need to ask leading questions, just well designed objective questions. You will get better ideas and less resistance. Follow up with comments and more objective questions until their answers point to your desired result. Suddenly, it’s their idea. While this approach seems to take longer and require more effort, questions help you avoid defensiveness and resistance and often this is the fastest way to your desired result.
I’ve been negotiating transactions and resolving disputes for over 30 years. Asking questions is one of my favorite and most successful techniques. I know that initially I have limited knowledge of the situation, and that is usually heavily weighted towards my client’s perspective. But, I can’t get a deal done or a dispute resolved until I can get both sides to the same place. Questions help me learn and people like to be heard, which is a critical step in resolving problems. If the initial answers and facts support my client’s position, I find asking additional questions is a very effective way to get the other party to an acceptable resolution.
At our collection agency, I frequently deal with clients whose customers don’t want to pay for the full amount of a long term contract. The most common reasons are: they don’t need the services any longer, they weren’t getting the sales results desired from advertising or marketing services, they didn’t cancel before it auto-renewed, or they’ve run into financial problems. The most common excuse is that our client failed to perform. Once I learn their position and underlying rationale, I’ll ask questions:
- Where in the contract does it say you can cancel?
- Where in the contract does our client guaranty market results?
- When did you first realize there might be a performance issue?
- Where is your written documentation and notice of performance failure?
- What does the auto-renewal language say?
- Where is your written cancellation notice?
I find that by asking questions instead of making assertions, there is less resistance, more focus on the specific point, and a realization that their legal position is precarious. They may not admit any weakness, but as long as they understand, progress has been made and the specific issue no longer needs to be addressed. Now we can focus on negotiations and a resolution.
Questions As A Negotiating Tactic
A few years ago a small businessman called me after his $300,000 project with a public company blew up at the last moment. Days before the project was to be completed, the legal department at the public company noticed some paperwork issues they wanted to rectify. They passed along their requests to their project manager who communicated with the vendor. While the requests seemed very reasonable to the legal department, there were a variety of reasons why they were not reasonable to the vendor. The vendor said “no” to the project manager, the legal department said “no deal” to the project manager, and a minor disaster resulted.
I got involved when the customer was demanding the return of their deposit and the vendor wanted full payment of the remaining contract balance since he had essentially fully performed. After weeks of collecting information and phone calls with the customer, I finally pieced together what happened. Regardless of the specific issues between the companies, a stalemate had ensued and the project failed because during the dispute, each side had developed a position and simply kept repeating it.
The breakthrough in my attempt to resolve the dispute came when I asked the following question to the general counsel of the public company: ‘Why didn’t someone from your department talk directly with the vendor to understand his concerns and explore alternatives?’ The attorney realized the mistake and became more open to take a different approach in the current discussions. It took some tough negotiating from there, but we eventually found a way to avoid the courtroom and my client was satisfied with the final monetary compensation.
Questions Turn Focus From Position To Underlying Objective
As in the stalemate example above, I see this Position Problem in negotiations all the time. The parties focus on positions and not on what they want to accomplish. Whether it’s an acquisition, investment, intellectual property license, or debt collection, when you get stuck on positions, you are not likely to complete a deal. All too often, each side assumes it is a zero-sum game and that moving from their current position is a loss for them and a win for the other side. That usually isn’t the case, as getting a deal done is how each side actually gets a win, and the worst thing that can happen is each side remains stuck.
Knowledge is Power
This cliche is especially true in negotiations and dispute resolution. Both sides know it and may intentionally attempt to limit the knowledge you gain or mislead to get an advantage. You typically only get a limited amount of time and number of questions to ask. The amount of knowledge you gain will be directly tied to how well you ask questions.
Preparation is an extremely valuable part of the process. I try to learn as much as I can before a negotiation session or debt collection call. This way I can focus my questions on the areas where I have limited insight or knowledge and fill in the gaps so I can devise a strategy to achieve success.
Early in my career, I would ask leading or multiple choice questions because I thought I already had certain knowledge from my research and preparation. I wanted to race to the finish line from that starting point. All too often, despite my poorly worded questions, I would learn that my assumptions were wrong and there were other reasons that lead to the dispute. Or, worse, people would go down the path of my leading question and it would be much later before I learned of the other underlying issues and concerns. So, while preparation is key, I now focus on asking questions in a better way so I get more valuable answers.
Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to ask better questions. It just takes a little focus to start with the right word and stop at the question mark.