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Do you ask questions that really matter?

Managers who ask the right questions are better informed, and more likeable too

People who ask the right questions regularly add a lot of value to a discussion in the workplace.
People who ask the right questions regularly add a lot of value to a discussion in the workplace.

Conversations between colleagues are an integral part of our offices, and they define much of our workplace experience. In India, as in some other parts of the world, we love speaking. But there is one key aspect of conversations that many of us have not consciously focused on—the art of asking questions. Are we asking the right questions, in the appropriate manner, at the right time?

We attempt to answer this important question here, based on research that has been carried out at Harvard University, as well as our own experience. If you reflect carefully on discussions in your own office, you are likely to conclude that not enough of the right kind of questions are being asked. Some questions are posed rhetorically, quite often questions are asked merely to impress others, and then there are lots of lazy questions which do not delve deep enough. Such questions often do more harm than good, and are also a recurring source of irritation. On the other hand, you will find that people who ask the right questions regularly, in a conducive manner, add a lot of value, and are generally respected.

So here are some home truths about asking questions.

Firstly, ask questions

If you are seeking information, it is important that you ask questions. How else will you get the answers you require ? In most conversations, people spend an inordinate proportion of time speaking about themselves, what they have achieved, their own feelings and experiences, rather than asking questions about others. Such loquacious behaviour may occasionally help to impress the other person, but very soon most others are likely to tune off, unless you are bringing many fresh new ideas to the table. On the other hand, if you ask relevant questions, there is a good probability that you will be rewarded with new learning. And, in addition, people around you will know that you are curious, and are engaged in what they are saying. As a result, you are likely to be naturally included in the flow of the conversation.

Avoid useless questions

Many of us arrive in office each morning, and dutifully ask each other: “How are you?" There is growing evidence that this is a useless question, because the answer is mostly predictable: “I am doing fine, and how are you?" Even if the other person is in the throes of a terrible crisis in his life, he is unlikely to reveal this to you in response to this rhetorical question. Why? Because, in actual fact, this is just an exchange of pleasantries. The questioner is not really bothered about the response to his question, and so the person answering does not care to tell the truth either. On the other hand, if you were to ask your early morning colleague pleasant and answerable questions such as: “What are you planning to do this weekend?", or “What food are you planning to treat yourself to, this week?", you may get interesting responses which may actually start off a real, personal conversation.

Power of follow-up questions

Some of the most powerful queries are follow-up questions. When you listen to a person speaking on a particular subject, and then ask questions that follow up on the same topic, then you are likely to get very good answers. This happens because, in the first place, the speaker possesses some knowledge of that subject; and also because the speaker has now sensed your keen interest in what she has said. Therefore, she is willing to explore your question, and this quickly pushes the conversation beyond the superficial into deeper content. A series of follow-up questions and answers is perhaps the best method of ensuring that the discussion becomes a meaningful and fulfilling conversation. There is an added benefit of asking follow-up questions. In a research paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, titled It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Question-Asking Increases Liking, five professors from Harvard University point out that people who ask follow-up questions tend to be better liked by their conversation partners, because they are seen as being higher in responsiveness. Now, that’s an added bonus—you get your answers, and you also end up being better liked by your colleagues!

Crafting great questions

To trigger great conversations, figure out what are the really interesting and insightful questions that you can ask your colleagues, in the context of the meeting you are engaged in. For instance, if you are at a sales review, ask them what are the top three things they did which helped them achieve the sales results they are presenting at the meeting, rather than merely congratulating them on the results. Ask questions such as: “What has been the most exciting thing you learnt last month about our customers?"; “What challenges did you face this season, and how did you try to address these?"; “Can you share one nice story from our retail stores that you are really proud of?"; “What is the most important thing I should know about new members of your team?" In other words, go beyond the cursory small talk or the usual routine, and ask questions that open doors for people to share their real experiences and perspectives with you. If your great questions are in the really important areas that matter, watch how the discussion quickly moves into deep and constructive conversation.

Finally, never ever stop yourself from asking a question just because you are worried that it may be perceived as idiotic, or may show you as being incompetent. These are often the unexpectedly simple questions that unearth the most insightful answers.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. He is author of The Curious Marketer. His aspiration is to ask one great question each day. The big question is: “When will he begin doing this?"

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