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OWNER'S MANUAL

The Worst Kind of Question You Can Ask
 

Stop sucking all the creativity out of the room. When you want ideas and feedback, don't ask for them like this.

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If you have kids, I bet this sounds familiar:

You're on the phone with your mother. She asks to speak to her granddaughter, your four year-old. You hand over the phone.

Your daughter gets a huge smile and says, "Hello?" in that excited I-wonder-who-wants-to-talk-to-me-wow-this-phone-thing-is-still-really-cool voice every kid has for a while.

Unfortunately, "Hello?" quickly turns into a long string of "Uh-huh" and "Nu-uh" and "No" and "Yes"

Eventually, her smile long gone, your daughter hands the phone back. Your mother says, "Wow, she certainly wasn't talkative today."

And you think, "Well, no wonder—you asked her a bunch of yes/no questions. What did you expect?"

Something similar can happen when you talk to employees, customers, vendors... anyone.

According to Phil McKinney, the retired chief technology officer for Hewlett-Packard's Personal Systems Group and the author of Beyond the Obvious: Killer Questions That Spark Game-Changing Innovation, there are good questions and bad questions.

Good questions cause people to really think before they answer them, sometimes revealing answers that had previously eluded them.

Bad questions cause people to shut down.

What are the most common answers to bad questions? In my experience, "Yes" and "No."

McKinney calls bad questions "tag questions":

Some of the most important questions to avoid are ones that don't really ask for a response at all. Tag questions are statements that appear to be questions, but don't allow for any kind of answer except agreement. A tag question is really a declarative statement turned into a question, and used to get validation for the speaker's "answer." Family members, authority figures, or executives who want to appear to care about the opinion of another person, but really want their instructions carried out without discussion, often favor tag questions... his phrasing of the question shows that he is not willing to consider an alternative point of view.

Say you ask employees questions like these:

  • Don't you think our new advertising campaign is fantastic?
  • Certainly you won't have a problem getting that to me by Friday?
  • The project won't require us to radically overhaul our processes, right?

How can an employee answer? In each case your point of view is obvious. If he disagrees, he won't just be sharing his opinion—he'll also be saying you're wrong.

Good luck getting honest feedback.

The fundamental point of asking a question is to get information, input, or ideas. (In his book, McKinney describes a number of "killer questions" that challenge other people to find opportunities for new ideas.)

Any question that restricts people from feeling free to honestly answer is offensive; it reduces the quality of information you're going to get and makes the person being questioned feel that they are being dismissed.

Is that what you hope to accomplish?

Think about some of the questions you ask. While you might assume that asking a question instead of making a statement is more "inclusive," chances are it's not.

Never ask a question unless you want an answer—even, or maybe especially—if that answer is one you might not want to hear.

Last updated: Apr 12, 2012

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.
@jeff_haden




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