Here's the Secret to Asking Questions the Right Way
The questions you ask determine the answers you get in business--and in life in general. But to get the right answers, it's not just whether you ask questions but whether you ask the right questions the right way--in other words, whether you employ critical thinking, according to Harvard Business Review contributor John Coleman.
Information is power, and data is the most valuable resource on the planet--as well as the most vulnerable. Every question asked is an opportunity to get high-value data and immense insights. How much information you gain--or fail to--depends on how your question is posed.
In business and sales, presenting questions the right way can give you the answers you need to close the deal--from that multimillion-dollar property to securing crucial pre-seed funding. In your day-to-day, it can help you choose the right suppliers or manufacturers, manage your teams, and make informed strategic decisions. In the hiring process, it can uncover the information you need to identify the right candidate.
Companies deploy these strategies all the time to brilliantly acquire key information. In fact, it's part of how companies like Apple secretly, and ingeniously, test candidates, and it's core to Elon Musk's hiring strategy, which uses the "2-Hands Test" instead of degrees to discover the more intelligent people in the field.
Open the door for problem-solving
We all know it's best to avoid yes-or-no questions and to ask open-ended ones instead. But not all open-ended questions are framed to give you an in-depth response.
According to HBR's Coleman, what you want to do instead is ask questions that require critical thinking. To do this, you need to create space for active problem solving. This not only eliminates the short, and largely uninformative, single-word response, but it forces the respondent to open up, giving you a depth of understanding that you wouldn't likely get otherwise.
For example, Coleman says that instead of asking a straightforward yes-or-no question such as "Is this market stable?" frame the same question as, "If the market were unstable, why would that be?"
Drop your angle
Questions are asked for a reason. There's always an angle, and with that something to gain from getting the answer. It might be as simple as an honest curiosity, but it can be a bit more self-serving or even sardonic--something to hold over someone else or a direct personal benefit to be had. While you can't entirely relinquish your angle, you can greatly reduce how evident it appears to the person whom you're asking.
This matters because the human mind is wired to seek and identify danger. This process naturally involves looking for signals of risk, something that a question with an angle that doesn't help you can do. And if it's not helpful, the mind might assume it might be harmful.
Take the approach used in science and angle your questions to try to prove your hypothesis wrong, not right. Without an evident angle, your questions are received more innocently, and are more likely to yield an open response.
Ask for details
Draw information from others by asking questions as if you already know the answer and simply want to hear more details about it. This was one of my late dad's favorite tricks. He would cleverly say something to the effect of, "I heard about last weekend. How did that happen?" And more often than not, the recipient would then completely divulge a story they likely hadn't been planning to share.
Even if nothing had happened, people quickly referred to whatever they might have been most guilty of and then expounded on it. In return, my dad got many stories and deep intel he might not have had otherwise. And he definitely got into the psyche of others more than if he had just asked how someone had been.
People, by nature, want to expound--especially when they believe the other person is already privy to something they didn't necessarily want them to know. It's how police get additional information when pulling over drivers.
The classic "Do you know why I pulled you over?" is effective because no one wants to sound uninformed or unintelligent, so people will quickly fumble for an answer. In return, the driver often gives the officer more intel that they wouldn't have had, had they not asked the question. Because I would bet very few just say "yes."
Next time you're looking for deeper intel, use these three strategies to get more information. Incite critical thinking by opening the door to problem solving, ask your question without an evident or self-serving angle, and, when possible, ask for details.
Patty Block, President and Founder of The Block Group, established her company to advocate for women-owned businesses, helping them position their companies for strategic growth. From improving cash flow…. to increasing staff productivity…. to scaling for growth, these periods of transition — and so many more — provide both challenges and opportunities. Managed effectively, change can become a productive force for growth. The Block Group harnesses that potential, turning roadblocks into building blocks for women-owned businesses.