A few weeks ago, I was talking with a couple who had been happily married for more than 40 years. Although they were well in their sixties, they still had the same warmth and excitement as newlyweds. Needless to say, I was impressed. In an age where couples get divorced on a whim, a stable marriage like this is a rare and treasured asset. Their success piqued my curiosity. What was their secret? How had they managed to maintain a thriving relationship for so long?
Their answer: It’s all about asking the right questions.
From a young age, we are trained to look for the correct answers. We get “As” on our tests when we answer a lot of questions correctly. We are constantly expected to understand things instantaneously, and as a result, we’re afraid that we might end up looking stupid if we ask for help.
The couple I met had a successful relationship because they knew what to ask, and when to ask it. They constantly keep their eyes and ears open and showed a willingness to learn about the other person’s personalities, struggles, and aspirations. This allowed them to provide each other with the support and encouragement that are cornerstones of a healthy relationship.
, asking the right questions is crucial in business as well. When Alan Wurtzel took over Circuit City in 1983, he spent hundreds of hours interviewing all the top-level managers at the firm on their strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for the company. He took everything in and always followed up if he didn’t understand something. By asking the right questions, Wurtzel developed a keen sense of the company’s needs and strategized accordingly. Over the next 15 years, Circuit City outperformed the general stock market by nearly three times and grew from a obscure retailer to a national powerhouse. Not bad.
A good place to start learning about how to ask the right questions is to understand what NOT to do. Here are a few types of questions that you should try to avoid.
Vague Questions: At some point we’ve all wondered “what is the meaning of life?” That doesn’t make it a good question. Who knows what the word “meaning” actually means? Questions like this will usually degenerate into a unproductive discussion. While these can be fun, they rarely lead to any meaningful transfer of information.
“Closed” Questions: You want to ask questions that facilitate discussion and ideally, some follow-up questions on your end. For example, asking someone “how was your day?” can be answered with a simple “ok.” Instead, asking something like “what was the single best thing about your day” will elicit a more specific response.
The “Why” Questions: It’s ok to ask “why” something is the way it is once in awhile, but asking it repeatedly can come across overly confrontational. The last thing you want is to be seen as excessively judgmental.
Now that we’ve talked a little about things you shouldn’t do, let’s try to figure out…
The Characteristics of Good Questions:
Be Specific: Let’s say that you wanted to learn more about how a certain business was successful. You could ask a question like “what’s the secret to your success?” but that could easily yield a vague response. Instead, ask something like “What are the three most important decisions you’ve made to increase your bottom line?” This is far more specific and will provide you with much more valuable information.
Explain what you already know: A few years ago, I met with a successful entrepreneur for some advice on how to structure a new business plan. The entrepreneur’s time was valuable and I wanted to get the most out of our conversation. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of not telling him that I already had a good background in business. As a result, he spent most of the time answering my questions in a fairly basic fashion, while I was looking for much more specific insights. I could have easily gotten more out of the conversation had I been upfront about my background and knowledge.
Understand Your Goals: Good questions are goal-oriented. It’s much easier to frame a good question if you know your reason for asking it. So make sure that you understand why you are asking a question before you ask it…otherwise you risk wasting everyone’s time.
What do you think makes a great question? Please share in the comments