OWNER'S MANUAL

5 Ways to Ask the Perfect Question

When you care about the answer--and you always should--how you ask the question is everything.
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I thought I had the answer. Still, I wanted to be sure, so I asked a key employee.

"I'm thinking of moving two crews to a different shift rotation to get a better process flow," I said. "I've run the numbers, and overall productivity should go up by at least 10 percent. What do you think?"

He thought for a minute. "I suppose it could work," he said.

"I think so, too," I said. So I moved them.

My new shift rotation worked on paper. It even worked in practice. But it screwed up the personal lives of a bunch of great employees. (Luckily, I pulled my head out of my ass and shifted everyone back to their old rotations.)

What happened? I asked the wrong question.

We all do it. We ask leading questions. We ask limiting questions. We ask questions that assume a certain answer. (Shoot, sometimes we don't even listen to the answers--we're too busy presuming we're right.)

Here are some ways to ask the wrong questions:

You lead the witness.

Asking a question that assumes a particular answer is easy to do when you already think you're right and just want people to say you're right.

Examples:

  • "Don't you think we should go ahead and release that order?"
  • "Do you think we should wait any longer than we already have?"
  • "Can anyone think of a good reason not to discipline Joe?"

Each question assumes an answer: You clearly think you should release the order, stop waiting, and write Joe up. Though a few people may disagree, most won't--the answer you want to hear is obvious.

A better way:

  • "What do you think we should do about that order?"
  • "Programming isn't complete yet. What do you think we should do?"
  • "What do you think is the best way to deal with Joe's situation?"

Each is objective, direct, and does not include an answer in the question. And each also leaves room for a variety of options, which won't happen when...

You stick to either/or questions.

You have a quality problem and have thought of two possible solutions. There are positives and negatives to both. So you seek input from a team member. "Should we just scrap everything and rework the whole job," you ask, "or should we ship everything and hope the customer doesn't notice?"

Most people will pick one answer or the other. But what if there's a better option you haven't considered?

A better way: "There are defects throughout the whole order. What do you think we should do?"

Maybe she'll say scrap it. Maybe she'll say ship and hope.

Or maybe she'll say, "What if we tell the customer up front there is a problem, ship everything to them, and take a crew to their warehouse to sort product. That reduces the impact on the customer. They can use whatever is good and won't have to wait for the entire job to be re-run."

Either/or questions, just like leading questions, assume some answer. Instead of sharing options, just state the problem. Then ask "What do you think?" Or "What would you do?" Or "How should we handle this?"

And then shut up and let people think. Don't rush to fill the silence.

You don't try to clarify.

Asking questions can make you feel vulnerable when you're in a leadership role. (You're supposed to have all the answers, right?) That makes it hard to ask questions when you don't understand--especially when you're supposed to understand.

Don't worry: Asking for clarification is easy. Just say:

  • "I'm impressed. Now pretend I don't know anything about how that works. How would you explain it to me?"
  • "That sounds really good. Let me make sure I don't miss anything, though. Can you walk me through it one more time?"
  • Or, best of all: "I have to be honest: I'm not sure I understand what you're saying, but I really want to." (A little humility goes a long way.)

Above all, don't pretend you understand when you don't--all you do is waste the other person's time and make the person wonder later why you didn't try his or her idea.

Now let's flip it around. Here's how to ask great questions:

  1. Limit the actual question to one sentence. Feel free to state the problem or issue in detail, but limit your question to one sentence. "How can we increase productivity?" "How can we improve quality?" "What would you do if you were me?" Sticking to one sentence helps ensure your questions are open ended.
  2. Provide options in the question only if those truly are the only options. But keep in mind those rarely are the only options. The odds you've already thought of everything are pretty slim.
  3. Don't shade the question. You may think you know the answer. Great. Keep that to yourself. Make your questions answer-neutral.
  4. Follow the same principles for follow-up questions. Stay short. Stay open ended. Stay neutral.
  5. Talk as little as possible. You already know what you know. Great questions are designed to find out what the other person knows. So stay quiet and listen. You never know what you'll learn when you ask the right way.
IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Apr 8, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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