If you want good answers, ask good questions

Did you know that we human beings are incapable of NOT answering a question? I just asked you a question, and you answered it in your mind — either you knew or you didn’t know, and it was impossible for you not to at least THINK your answer. Isn’t that true? See — I asked you another question, and you answered again!

Of course we don’t always answer the question out loud, but just answering it in our minds can start a thought process that will either be useful or not. So learning to ask good questions is a valuable communication skill.

Let’s say, for example, I ask you, “Why didn’t you send me a copy of your report?” This may sound like a request for facts, but most of us would interpret it as an accusation. You’d think I was blaming you for not having sent me a copy, and your answer is likely to be defensive. This can cause resentment on both our parts and is unlikely to open up a useful dialogue.

Consider, on the other hand, “Would you mind sending me a copy of your report?” There’s no implied criticism here, just a simple request that’s likely to get the desired result without ill will.

This is, of course, a rhetorical question. We tend to think of sentences starting with “would you mind…” as not really questions, but they are. This means that the other person must answer, even if only mentally. Of course, we assume the answer will be positive. But effective questions don’t need to be rhetorical. Here’s another example.

If I ask my team, “Why can’t we reach our sales target?”, each person will immediately come up with answers as to why we can’t. With every answer, we have another apparent justification for not reaching the target, making it harder to find a way to do so. Any time you ask “why not?” — people will tell you why not.

But if I ask instead, “How can we reach our sales target?”, they will start coming up with answers in the form of ideas to help achieve the goal. When you ask “how?” — they will tell you how, which is exactly what you want.

This technique of asking the right questions is a valuable communication skill and well worth cultivating. Try it — next time you are about to ask a question, stop for a moment first and make sure you phrase it in such a way that the answer will be a constructive one.