Shane Snow, co-founder of Contently.com advocates asking incisive questions to extract more value from meetings, mentors’ guidance, and chance encounters with thought leaders and influencers.
He notes that expert journalists, researchers, innovators, and therapists are trained to ask effective questions, and their common “best practices” include:
- Listening more than talking
- Asking open-ended questions to avoid suggesting responses: “Who?”, “What?”, “When?”, “Where?”, “How?”, “Why?”
They use closed-ended questions sparingly: “Is?”, “Would?” and “Do?”
- Posing one concise question at a time.
They avoid multiple choice questions
- Waiting for an answer without interjecting more questions or comments.
They rarely interrupt themselves or others
- Tolerating the other person’s silence for several seconds before talking
- Directly, repeatedly probing for insightful, revealing replies
- Nodding only when the response is intelligible, logical, and understandable
- Interjecting questions or rephrasing the original question to redirect tangential responses
- Cross-checking information and following up possible inconsistencies with more probing questions
Nearly a century earlier, Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries introduced an iterative problem-solving approach based on posing “Five Whys” to uncover the root cause of an issue.
This technique is now-widely applied in Lean Manufacturing, and is advocated by Eric Reis in The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses .
‘”Five Whys” were reduced to “Three Whys” to uncover customer objections in sales situations, and was modified Judith Beck in cognitive therapy to identify underlying Core Beliefs that lead to negative automatic thoughts.
Beck softens the “Five Whys” by repeatedly asking “If that were true, what would it mean?”
Her model that suggest connections among:
Early experience->Core beliefs (schemas) ->Underlying assumptions (if/then – conditional) ->Automatic thoughts-> Physical Experiences->Self-Limiting Behaviors
Therapist and writer Lois Frankel illustrated the similarity of effective questions in psychotherapy sessions with those used to spur inquiry and innovative breakthroughs.
She advises interviewers and consultants to:
- Use questions to define your purpose:
What do you want to gain from this conversation?
- New ideas
- Clarification of opinions or attitudes
- What is the “real” problem? Engineers and business people answer this question using a “Root Cause Analysis”
- What are the options?
- What are the likely consequences?
- What results will justify the invested time, effort or money?
- Ask specific questions:
- What could we do differently?
- Why is this important?
- How can we best meet our objective?
- What do you want to happen?
- What don’t you want to happen?
- What is the best thing that could happen?
- What is the worst thing that could happen?
- How will you react if you don’t follow this course of action?
Frankel advises to
- Maintain eye contact:
- Focus full attention on the interviewee
- Repeat and summarize important points to verify accurate understanding
- Listen for:
- Content (facts)
- Intent (feelings)
- The way these are expressed (process).
Journalist Warren Berger applied refined questioning in Design Thinking processes to produce innovative solutions in Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your World .
He advocates continued exploration of meaningful “big” questions in his blog, A More Beautiful Question.
-*What effective questioning practices have you found most helpful in achieving business results?
- Tim Hurson recommends New Questions, “Senses” for Innovative Thinking and Problem-Solving
- John Miller, Dennis Matthies, David Cooperrider suggest Effective Questions as Change and Innovation Catalyst
- Design Thinking to Address Social and Business Problems
- Hypothetical Questions May Lead to Bias
- Five Questions to “Work Any Room”
- Questions to Discover, Communicate Personal Mission