No one has ever discovered the answer to anything without first asking a question. Self-evident, maybe, but not necessarily simple. There is a difference between asking good questions and bad, between nodding your head responses and actually hearing the answers, and in going down a list of questions and engaging the subject. Here are three steps to peeling the layers of the onion:
The only dumb question is the one that is not asked
People avoid asking questions for fear of looking stupid, but no one knows everything about everything. Asking questions is not ignorance, it is empowerment. You will miss every shot that you do not take and chances are, if you have a question, someone else has that same question in mind, too. So ask. Asking questions makes you curious, inquisitive, and interested in learning new things. Asking questions is the antidote to ignorance, to confusion, and to uncertainty.
Asking questions also stops others from perceiving you as that guy. You know the one – the self-professed smartest person in the room, the person who not only knows how to do your job better than you do but is also too happy to say so to anyone within earshot. Where do you go when you believe that you know everything? To the no-growth zone and when things stop growing, they die.
When you ask probing questions, good information tends to reveal itself if you deploy….
A laser, not a shotgun
Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. Questions are an attempt to elicit information, specific information, so they have to be thought out. Ask questions that cannot be answered in yes/no fashion, ask questions based on the five Ws, and don’t ask questions that presume the answer. If you know the answer, there is no point in asking the question. if you are simply looking for confirmation, ask directly, don’t fish for the answer you want. And if the answer violates your expectations, ask another question.
In addition, learn to be comfortable with silence. Silence makes most people nervous; they can’t break it fast enough. Embrace it; silence is often the mark of a good question that has caused the other person to pause and think before responding which means you should get a useful answer. Silence also shows interest in the conversation because it shows that you…..
Listen to the answers that are elicited
Listening is grossly under-valued; you don’t learn anything by talking. Just ask any beleaguered spouse about the value of listening. Or any frazzled parent. Good questions tend to elicit thoughtful answers, and thoughtful answers almost always contain a nugget that begs for a follow-up question. If you’re not listening with purpose, then you are missing the opportunity to follow-up.
There is also an important tangential benefit in listening – it tells the other person that you value that individual’s wisdom, experience, and perhaps most important, the person’s time. By asking for the time, you have already said “I believe you know things that are important, things that I should know about X.” Don’t waste the opportunity by tossing softballs or looking to confirm your biases.
If you are unclear on an answer, repeat it back. Not only does this ensure understanding, it also reiterates that you are attentive. And if a person makes a good point but then veers into an unrelated ramble, don’t be afraid to interject. Interject, not interrupt, with a question that says “you brought up something interesting a moment ago, let’s go back to that.”
This is not rocket surgery but life is in the details. Have a conversation, not an interrogation.