The Power of Asking Questions: Communication Skills Matter

power of asking questionsYou can’t pick up a magazine or book, read something on the Internet and realize how important good communication skills are in business. In fact, in my book Finding the Fork in the Road, I comment that everything that works or doesn’t work in an organization is about communication. A key component in effective communication is asking questions. There is so much power in asking questions, and asking the right questions at the right time.

Let’s begin with a few examples to demonstrate the power of questions.

  1. You need to have a difficult conversation with someone about their performance. You could start the conversation sharing your disappointment or frustration or you could ask questions. “How do you think your performance is?” “Your performance is not up to par, what can I do to help you improve?” “Can you tell me your understanding of my expectations?”
  2. You’re in a sales conversation. Talking about your company or what you offer won’t help you discover what the project needs. How about: “What do you want to learn in this conversation?” “I’d like to spend our time getting to know you, and give you the opportunity to ask me whatever questions you have, does that work for you?” “Based on what I’m hearing you are ready to say yes and we just need to work out the details, is that correct?”
  3. During an interview. The standard interview questions they will be prepared for. Consider: “If I was to ask your boss and your colleagues about you, what are the adjectives they would use to describe you?” “How would you handle a situation where you didn’t know the answer to something and your manager was not available to ask?” “Do you prefer being part of a team or working alone?”
  4. Negotiating anything (salary, resources, costs, projects, etc.). Often in negotiations we get into telling mode, telling someone why we are making the request we are. What if you shifted your approach to question-based rather than telling based. Example: “What information would you need to know if I was going to make a proposal?” “Are there budget constraints I need to be aware of?” “What challenges would you face if (insert I received I raise, we added more people to the department, I needed different terms to make this sale happen…)?”

Asking questions is like listening, most of us don’t do it well and often enough. We tell people what we want them to know, think, feel, and understand. And we don’t even take the time to ensure they understood, and then wonder why the outcome is different than our expectations. Good communication requires asking questions.

Recently several clients came to me with the same challenge, how to get people accountable when they don’t work directly for them. In one case they need the contracts department to generate the agreement. In another it was the legal team to review a proposal for new business. In a third it was people on a strategic planning team from four other departments. I suspect you can think of similar situations for yourself.

I started the conversation by asking them to explain what request they had made. In each case they had a conversation with someone, explained their needs and were told it would get done. What was missing from each of those conversations? Of course questions, but what type of questions? Requests, specifics on timing, clarity about the other’s understanding of what needed to be done and the importance, what might get in the way of them completing on time, what could the person making the request do to help or facilitate this task…and more.

They talked to them, then sent emails when they hadn’t heard from them, left voice mails reminding them and guess what? They got nothing. Why? Well, first of all, there was not commitment on the part of the person who they made the request to. Not agreement on by when or regular communication or anything else. Because they didn’t ask these questions, they just assumed it would happen.

Had they asked the questions they would have had a clear understanding and expectation of the timing, process, challenges and anything else related to the project. They would have been able to discuss accountability. And even if the other person didn’t follow through, they had a way to manage the situation instead of sitting in a place of frustration.

Good communication skills require you learning to ask questions all the time. When someone says they will get it to you on Wednesday, does that mean Wednesday close of business, morning, or what? And if they are in a different time zone is it their time zone or yours? When you make a request for a task, how do you know if the other party understands exactly what you want…you ask questions. If you make a job offer to someone you interviewed and they ask for more money, does that mean they will accept…you don’t know. You have to ask a question such as, “If we give you the salary you are asking for are you ready to accept?”

The power in questions is that you get information. It doesn’t mean you like the responses, but it does mean you have the information to make an informed decision. Ask yourself, how often do I ask questions? I bet not often enough.

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