Asking Questions

By: Jim Bruce

“Without a good question a good answer has no place to go.”     – Clayton Christensen

Over the past several weeks, I’ve encountered three interesting reads – on coaching and asking questions, one a book, The Coaching Habit, and the other two essays, The Right Way to Ask a Question, and You Need a Coaching Habit, all by the same author, Michael Bungay Stanier.  Stanier is founder and Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a Canadian company focusing on helping time-crunched managers develop a coaching habit, so that it becomes a regular and useful part of their management repertoire.
In today’s Tuesday Reading, I’ll focus on asking questions.  Dan Pink, in his book Drive, tells us that the factors of mastery, autonomy, and purpose, spark motivation.  And, that’s what you’d like to do as a leader, spark motivation.  Stanier tells us that asking questions is a simple, powerful, yet difficult way of doing this.  Good, well asked questions, he believes, can increase autonomy and mastery, and possibly purpose.
Key here, and to Christensen’s point, is that the questions need to be good questions – not all questions are created equal – and well asked. 
Stanier has five suggestions that will help us ask good questions:

1.     Start softly.  No one likes to face a barrage of questions, an inquisition.  If you are out to understand and uncover wisdom, ratchet down the intensity of your questions.  Stanier suggests that the phrase “I’m curious” makes the conversation feel safer and more collegial.  For example, “I’m curious about the approach you chose.  Can you tell me more?”

2.     Ask one question.  All of us, out of an interest to get all our questions out in the open at once, fire away with a barrage.  Doing so overwhelms and confuses.  A better way is for you to identify the best next question, the one that will be most useful to answer, and ask that one.  Ask that one question and be quiet until it’s answered.

3.     Listen carefully.  Having asked your best question, be courteous and listen to the answer.  Don’t interrupt.  Don’t let your mind rush forward to formulate the next question.  Don’t focus on anything except what is being said.  Listening fully is rare, powerful, expresses trust, and engagement.  It is a gift you are giving to your conversation partner.

4.     Next, ask, “And what else?” (AWE).  Stanier points out that the first answer you received may not be the best answer.  It may be just the answer that was readily available.  By asking AWE, you are giving your conversation partner an opportunity to dig a bit deeper and, as research suggests, get an answer that is closer to the heart of the matter.  It results in the conversation yielding greater value.  Asking the AWE question has an additional value.  It stops you from jumping in to begin fixing things.  Stanier puts it this way:    “If you are asking questions, you’re not offering advice.  And while there’s a place for advice of course, it’s not needed nearly as often as you might think.”

5.      What was most useful here for you?  This is you asking for feedback.  Was the conversation that you thought was valuable, really valuable to your conversation partner?  Asking this question helps both of you extract value from the conversation. 

Asking questions is one of the most important things we do in our conversations.  Perhaps these suggestions will help all of us sharpen our questions in the coming days.
Make your week a great one.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Michael Bungay Stanier, The right way to ask a question, Glob and Mail, Careers’ Leadership Lab Series, April 6, 2016.
Michael Bungay Stanier, The Coaching Habit – Say Less, Ask More Questions, & Change the Way You Lead Forever, Box of Crayons Press, 2016.
Michael Bungay Stanier, You Need a Coaching Habit, Huffington post, April 27, 2016.


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