When I am working with new coaches they often request I provide information on the right questions to ask clients. Sales people I work with want me to create a list for them of the questions they should ask prospects. Leaders in organizations want to know the right interview questions to ask and what questions to ask employees when handling performance issues. And that’s just a few of the areas they want to discuss. Everyone is looking for the right questions to ask in whatever situation they find themselves in. They are asking me, and others, the wrong question. Instead of asking to be given a laundry list of the right questions to ask, they should focus on how to ask questions the right way.
There is a proverb that says “It’s not what you say but how you say it” that makes a difference in how it is interpreted. The same applies to questions. You can ask almost any question you want, assuming you don’t cross a legal or ethical boundary, it’s how to ask questions that matters. There are a few guidelines I want to throw out for you to consider.
- Don’t ask why questions. Why questions have judgment attached to them, even if that is not your intention. They make others defensive. Think about it. Asking “why did you do that” implies that person did something wrong, and their thinking was wrong. Instead ask “what went into your thinking about…” or “how did you decide on…”.
- Don’t ask questions that have an answer built into the question. “You realize that you not meeting the deadline causes a delay to that client” or “I know our fees are high and will likely cause a problem for you” (yes, more of a statement than a question and yes, I’ve heard this stated). Questions that have an answer already as part of the question aren’t useful.
- Questions are about discovery. The reason to ask questions is to learn about the person or the situation and discover information you don’t know. You have to be genuinely curious which means to the best of your ability setting aside your assumptions and judgments.
- Determine what’s important about your question before asking it. I’m kinda nosey so I ask a ton of questions because I like to really get to know people and understand them. That being said, it’s important to know what you need to know, and what makes it important to know. For example:
- In sales: You want to know if the prospect has ever purchased a product/service like yours. Are you asking to know how to tell them why yours is better, in order to know their experience with other vendors, where you fit, what to say if they have not purchased before, or something else? Any and all are good reasons, just determine why you are asking before you get a response.
- Coaching employees: Their performance has not been up to snuff and seems to be getting worse. What is the question you want to ask? Is it ‘what’s going on’ or ‘you seem to be struggling; what can I do to help’ or ‘we’ve had this talk before…what’s it going to take for you to shape up’ … or something else?
- Talking to your boss: You’ve repeatedly requested additional resources, and they have said yes but nothing is happening. How do you want to approach this? What is the most important question you want to ask? Is it ‘should I quit bugging you about this’, ‘ is it ever going to happen’, ‘what’s the hold-up’, ‘we discussed me obtaining X months ago and nothing is happening’ (more of a statement than a question) or something else?
Remember, it’s not the questions, it’s how you ask the questions. In the above example of talking to your boss, what you really want to know is ‘am I getting the resources discussed and approved, and if so when’. You can ask the question just like that or you can say “during the discussion we had on (insert date), my understanding was that you agreed to acquire the additional resource of X. I’m not aware of any movement on this and am wondering by when I can expect this resource, or has something changed?”.
Note you are still getting to the same end point…finding out if and when you will have the resource available to you. Consider what else is included in this question. First you indicated that your understanding was X. If your understanding was incorrect it gives them an opportunity to correct your thinking or provide a different interpretation. If you were correct it’s a nice way to remind the other person of the agreement. Including the date of the last discussion helps them realize how much time has gone by since the talk. Weeks is certainly different than months. The I’m not aware of any movement leaves it open to the possibility that things may be happening in the background, and you aren’t accusing them they aren’t. Asking for when you can expect resolution sets a proper expectation for you on timing, creates an agreement between you and them and shows respect. Finally, adding ‘has something changed’ indicates that you are aware that perhaps something has and you may not yet be aware.
There are no right questions to ask that fit all similar situations. In fact, I would suggest that asking that question…what are the right questions…demonstrates that it’s about you, not them. You want the key so you can get to the result you want. I think it’s not about the key. It’s about having a whole set of keys, none that may fit and being thoughtful and creative and caring enough to discover other options.
If I hand you a screwdriver, hammer, and pliers and tell you to go plant a garden and you can only use the tools I gave you, what would you do? Most likely you would figure it out and still create the garden. Would it be easier if I handed you a shovel, a trowel, and a pruner…maybe, but only because those are what you are familiar with. In the absence of knowing the right tools (or the right question) you will figure it out. I want you to figure it out, not give you all you think you need to know.
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