Asking the right question

“What’s the answer” is a refrain you hear often in business. Huge expectation is placed on getting the answer right. After all it’s the key to: winning the pitch; getting the job; convincing the board. But what if the real trick was not getting the answer right, but asking the right question?

For a world where ambiguity is the norm and emotional intelligence revered above IQ, surely it’s more important to place emphasis on asking the right question. Knowing the ‘right answer’, on the other hand, seems to belong to a bygone era – a world of good and evil, Star Wars and cowboys riding into the sunset.

Regular readers of this blog will know I am a huge fan of the lean start-up movement and the questioning approach it brings to the art of entrepreneurialism. In this school of business, gone is the autocratic, visionary leader who comes up with a brilliant solution and perseveres until his unique foresight is recognised. The lean start-up starts with a ‘minimum viable product’ that it uses to test the market – ask a series of questions and then act on the answers to constantly iterate the product.

But it’s not just in business start-ups that it’s critical to ask the right question. Doing so can advance most careers and build networking capability. It’ll help you engage more with other people, make your dinner parties more interesting and boost social confidence.

So, what makes a good question? Is it brevity? Or is it one where you offer up a couple of potential answers to help the person who has to listen to your question really understand the sort of possible conclusions that you’re thinking of yourself when you posed the question in the first place?

Here’s my perspective on what makes a good question, informed by an earlier phase of my working life spent as a journalist:

  • Keep it brief.
  • Don’t offer your own answer. And don’t fish for the answer you want.
  • Questions that start with How? When? Where? Why? are almost invariably better than those that start with Would? Should?
  • Use a question to find out what you don’t know, not to show off what you do know.
  • Don’t nod all the time. Particularly when you didn’t really understand their answer.
  • If you don’t understand, ask a follow-up question.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Give the other person time to think.