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Extract More Value from Meetings with Effective Questions

Shane Snow

Shane Snow

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
Sakichi Toyoda

Sakichi Toyoda

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.

The Lean StartupThis 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.

Judith Beck

Judith Beck

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

Five Whys to Uncover Core Beliefs

Lois Frankel

Lois Frankel

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?

    • Help
    • Advice
    • Information
    • Commitment
    • New ideas
    • Clarification of opinions or attitudes
    • Decision
      Overcoming your strengths
    • 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).
    Warren Berger

    Warren Berger

    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?

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Effective Questions as Change and Innovation Catalyst

James Thurber

James Thurber

American humorist and cartoonist James Thurber reassured his readers that “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers,” a dictum supported by philosophers, mindfulness meditation practitioners, psychotherapists, scientists, artists, and creative others.

Given the importance of questioning, many resources are available to refine skill in inquiry:  Understanding others’ questions, framing high-impact queries, responding to others, and using questions to catalyze individual and organizational change.

QBQJohn Miller’s sales-oriented QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life advocates understanding the intent of statements phased as questions by crafting “What?” and “How?” questions instead of defense-provoking “Why?”

His approach is applicable in organizational management and change situations, and argues for increasing personal accountability while decreasing blame by focusing on the underlying work concerns like achieving revenue targets, deliverable timelines, customer satisfaction goals, cost savings.

The Art of Powerful QuestionsLike Miller, Eric Vogt, Juanita Brown, David Isaacs advocate “What?” questions in The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action.

This team asserts that high-impact questions in business situations are valuable because they

• Evoke the listener’s curiosity, imagination, creative problem-solving, new possibilities
• Stimulate reflective conversation
• Provoke thoughtful consideration of diverse perspectives, contributions
• Clarify underlying assumptions
• Generates energy, progress, improvement
• Focus attention on issues and alternatives
• Memorably resonate with meaning
• Articulate progress toward shared understanding
• Suggest more questions

Dennis Matthies

Dennis Matthies, Chief Questioning Officer of Training organization Vervago supplies the “how” of questioning by helping business participants refine skill in formulating seven types of “precision” analytic questions, drawing on formal logic and critical thinking disciplines:

  • Assumption Questions, including existence, uniqueness, measurement, possibility, value, audience, time constancy, category, similarity
  • Basic Critical Questions (BCQ), including data, source
  • Questions of Clarification, including ambiguity/vagueness, “pivot table” segmentation for granular analysis
  • Go/No Go Questions, including “meeting basics and participation”, participant motivation analysis, inquiry focus

Vervago advocates “precision” responses to questions by:

  • Referring to the question
  • Answering briefly
  • Anticipating and addressing underlying concerns embedded in the question.
David Cooperrider

David Cooperrider

David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University broadened the vision of effective questioning’s potential impact when he developed Appreciative Inquiry (AI) as an affirmative approach collaborative organizational change.

This approach reduces resistance by focusing on desired change instead of the perceived problem, outlined in his book, with Diana Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change.

Appreciative InquiryAI’s “4Ds” of organizational change share some similarities with Design Thinking Processes:

  • Discovery Phase – Appreciating strengths and best practices of the current situation
  • Dream Phase – Envisioning the value and benefits of a proposed change
  • Design Phase – Defining processes and organizational structures that can deploy demonstrated strengths while moving toward a defined change state
  • Destiny Phase – Strengthen the organizational system’s capacity to sustain ongoing positive change

-*How do you use questions to clarify direction and initiate change?

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©Kathryn Welds