Questions can be one of the most effective communication tools available to us. Strong relationships, strategic plans, award-winning collateral, and the meaningful exchange of ideas and information are all products of asking skillful questions. If they're not, your communications could be weak or worthless, and you may experience miscommunications more often than necessary.

Why is the ability to ask skillful questions so powerful? Questions are the means we use to excavate new information, to compare our perspective with reality, and to learn more about what others are thinking and perceiving. When we don't ask questions, we're assuming that we know everything there is to know about the subject or the person. Is this ever the case? Rarely.

Tapping the Power of Questions

Interpersonally-- Asking questions demonstrates that you're listening (and actually helps you to listen), which always helps to strengthen relationships. Think of a conversation when someone didn't ask you a single question. How did you feel? What perception did you have of that person? Would you want to interact with him or her in the future? By setting a goal to ask several questions in all of your interactions, you'll gain powerful information to improve your own performance, strengthen relationships, and reduce misunderstandings.

Intrapersonally -- Many personal-mastery practices include the process of asking self-directed questions to determine your most fulfilling journey. As the philosophers-of-old emphasized, only the "examined life" is worth living. After all, if you don't ask yourself, how will you "know thyself?" Yet this isn't as easy to do as it is to say, particularly in Western cultures where people will do just about anything to avoid being quiet and focusing inward. Silence can be unnerving in our busy, noise culture -- yet quiet reflection is the fertile ground that yields insightful questions and responses (not to mention that trains us to sharpen our powers of observation and listen to others more skillfully).

Suspending assumptions -- Inquiry is a key element of dialogue, which encourages us to suspend assumptions to more fully understand another person's perspective. In day-to-day interactions, assumptions often lead to miscommunications, mismatched expectations, stress, damaged relationships, or unfulfilled responsibilities. The simple act of clarifying and confirming what you understand to be true, and seeing if others have a similar understanding, can eliminate the negative consequences of making too many assumptions. To do this, ask questions that ensure you have a common understanding of what is being discussed, and of what action needs to be taken. For example, the seemingly obvious question, "Will you take care of that?" would ensure that someone is taking responsibility for an action item, and that no two people are doing the same task. On an interpersonal level, checking in with someone about his intention to send a memo or about a comment that you perceived as rude or unsettling can help foster mutual understanding and unearth your own assumptions that may cause you to be overly sensitive.

Communicating clearly -- Any unasked (and thus, unanswered) question, is a trap door waiting to open under your feet. For example, imagine not asking a client what her desired outcome is. How will you reach a goal that you don't know about? Internally, consider a team whose members advocate ideas, but don't take the time to understand others' ideas or bring discussions to closure. The length and frequency of their meetings can soar, while actual progress creeps along at a snail's pace. Take time to ask thoughtful questions of each person. This is also a tremendous way to demonstrate your respect for each person and his ideas, which boosts morale and can increase employees' contributions to the business.

Working more effectively -- When teammates, leaders, and managers have the information that they need to do their jobs best, the enterprise benefits from increased productivity, and individuals reap the rewards of high morale and low stress (both are products of having, rather than hoarding, information). How do these constituents get the information they need? By asking. First of all, most people can't read others' minds. So the information won't come if not solicited. Secondly, it is the individual's responsibility to ask for what's needed; no one else should manage this.

Exercise Your Power-Question Aptitude

Asking skillful questions requires much more than putting a question mark at the end of a thought. First, you must make a habit of actually asking questions -- as opposed to stating your ideas, opinions, feedback, etc. Second, you have to raise your awareness of when questions can (or could have) helped improve an interaction, even if it went well.

Use these exercises to flex, build and hone your skillful-questioning aptitude:

Ask before advocating. In your next meeting or conversation, try to ask a sincere, relevant question before advocating your point -- in every instance. The topic of your questions might include gathering more information, clarifying a statement or perspective that someone shared, or asking for other participants' thoughts. Be sure to notice how the tenor of the meeting changes, and how people respond (actually and behaviorally).

Examine past assumptions. Think of an instance when you or someone else made an assumption, and when the outcome of the interaction was poor or less than ideal. Write down at least five questions you could have asked during that interaction to prevent assumptions from being made.

Inquire, don't interrogate. Thoughtful questions are a powerful tool for learning more and fostering understanding, yet no one likes to be interrogated! As with any other communication tool, be aware of your your own intention for asking the question (e.g. learning more versus attacking someone else's idea), as well as the tone of your voice, body language, and word choice.

A step you can take right now. Identify at least three opportunities you have in the next week to practice using inquiry and probing questions. (Meetings, impromptu phone calls, conversations with friends, and e-mail replies are all potential opportunities.)

Jamie Walters is the founder and Chief Vision & Strategy Officer at Ivy Sea, Inc. in San Francisco, CA.

This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the needs of your organization. Please use it mindfully. The most effective leadership, interpersonal, or organizational communication plan should be tailored to your unique needs, so don't hesitate to contact us at Ivy Sea or get assistance from a qualified adviser.

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