Here is the dialogue from an actual conversation I observed between Sam and Sara, after which both complained separately about the other when meeting with their mutual boss…me:
“I didn’t know that,” Sam said in an executive management meeting when Sara finished speaking. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You didn’t ask,” replied Sara.
Sam said, “I don’t ask questions. If someone wants me to know something, they’ll tell me.”
Sara said, “Well, I don’t tell unless someone asks.”
The inevitable conclusions from this exchange are impasse, ineffectiveness, fuel for conflict, time wasted and more.
Does this conversation sound familiar? It likely does since there are many people who never ask any questions, probably on your team.
So What is the Core Issue?
What we see here between Sam and Sara is a total failure to communicate because it takes both telling and asking to make any conversation effective. The problem is, however, that there is a lot more telling than asking in most team meetings.
My colleague, Warren Berger drives home the importance of questions in the title of his most recent book, “A Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.” Berger states:
“We’re all hungry today for better answers. But first, we must learn to ask the right questions.”
Berger supports the idea that some people are naturally Beautiful Questioners, which he describes as people who question deeply and imaginatively to problem solve and uncover new opportunities. He offers a free “Inquiry Quotient” assessment, an interesting tool for teams to try to see if they are naturally beautiful questioners or not.
How Many Questions is Enough Questions?
I am not aware of any research that demonstrates how many questions are appropriate to solve problems on teams. Twenty Questions, an old time radio quiz show that ran from 1946 to 1956, gave participants a maximum of 20 questions to figure out the answer to a quiz. But is that too many for the average conversation? Probably.
Whether it’s 2 or 10 or 20 isn’t the point, however. The point is that more questions are better than no questions. And the answer to how many questions is enough is the number of questions it takes to get to useful communication.
Here are some questions for team leaders and members to consider:
- Are you a teller or an asker?
- What dominates your team’s discussions, telling or asking?
- What percentage of the last team meeting did you talk?
- In the last team meeting, how many questions did you ask?
- When you meet someone new, do you start with telling or asking?
- Do you work with team members who never ask questions?
- If you are one of them, what questions could you ask in your next team meeting that might help move the conversation forward?
- If you are listening to a prolific teller, what thoughts go through your mind?
- If you are with someone who never asks questions, what goes through your mind?
- What would change on your team if members were trained and evaluated on their questioning ability?
Did some of the answers surprise you? My assumption is that they probably did. Questions can help us remember what we already know or uncover ideas we hadn’t yet considered. These discoveries can be the real “Eureka!” moments that we all seek when problem-solving or collaborating with our teams.
To that end, here are 20 questions that can help move team meetings, projects, and personal conversations forward with better communication and collaboration:
- Can you tell me more?
- Is this what you’re saying: x, y, and z?
- What is the core issue?
- How much time should we spend on this subject?
- What assumptions are we making?
- How are we going to make this happen?
- What is the next step?
- Who needs to know?
- What if we tried X?
- What is the goal?
- What are the barriers?
- Who else might know?
- What are we missing?
- Who will be impacted?
- Does this solution match our values?
- Is there something we’re avoiding?
- Is this the most important conversation we should be having now?
- What are the costs if we decide to move forward?
- Instead of “either/or,” what if we asked “and?”
- What are the arguments against this decision?
The 21st question might be: What can we each commit to do differently that would dramatically improve the quality of our interactions?
We all could use a few more questions in our conversations. I don’t think we need to teach people how to tell–except those who are afraid to speak up and don’t get their input heard. But I do believe we need to help our employees ask more efficiently and effectively.