How to Ask (the right) Questions?

Through the Global Citizen Program by Credit Suisse I’ve been exposed to some serious coaching and have received the opportunity to reflect on the power of questions.

First thing I realized: questions carry the risk of bringing me into trouble. “What’s your name, sir?”, “What is it you like doing in your spare time?”, “When will I receive the status update from your team?” have cost me a promotion, tarnished my image with senior management and led to a reprimanding phone call to my boss’ boss. Apparently it runs in the family, I was surprised to find out. My retired father also has examples where his questions were not received so well. It’s a minefield out there! Not always our fault but nevertheless: questions can be dangerous and seemingly undermine someone’s authority. Good questions elicit a friendly and thoughtful answer. And now I’m embarking on this journey to learn asking the right questions and asking questions the right way.

Why do I want to learn it? I realized in a recent coaching session how surprised I was a couple of years back by the performance of one of the youngest managing directors my company had ever had. He had just joined the project I worked on and needed to make himself familiar with what was going on. The questions he asked were so spot-on and powerful that immediate changes to how the project was run became obvious to every one present in the meeting room. All without raising the voice or ordering people to change course. I still haven’t figured out how he was able to ask the right questions but I’m going to find out.

The few weeks I’ve experimented with good questions I faced more obstacles than I’ve had successes. A lot of context is lost when both parties don’t speak English as a first language. The best questions to make sure we have been understood are unfortunately “yes/no” questions. Other times I have been exposed to people talking a lot and with very few breaks so there was just not enough opportunity and time to think about and then place a good question.  Other times I was too tight to listen well and think about my next question at the same time. I can’t see yet how, but somehow I know I will master the game of asking questions.

A famous example of someone changing the course gently is battleship commander Mike Abrashoff from the U.S. Navy. By asking three simple questions he was able to

  • Operate on less cost and save the Navy millions of dollars
  • Be operational more and longer than any other Pacific fleet ship
  • Promote twice as many people
  • Train people in half the time
  • Have less disciplinary cases
  • Have an attrition rate of close to zero

Here’s what he did. Almost immediately after taking command, he had 15- to 20-minute personal interviews with all his staff of 300 people. He asked each the same three questions:

  • What do you like best (about this ship)?
  • What do you like least?
  • What would you change if you could?

Then he went and removed obstacles so people could do their work. Ask yourself: when was the last time someone cared enough for your opinion to ask these questions? Would something change in your organization if your boss asked them?

Want to know more? Read about it in the book by Michael Marquardt “Leading with Questions”.

(photo by MrCTeach on flickr)

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