I’ve worked with some highly creative people during my career. I’ve also worked with very insightful thinkers, both in business and in academia. Oftentimes, the two skills overlap: creative people are also insightful thinkers and vice-versa. I’ve often wondered if creativity leads to insight or if insight leads to creativity. Lately, I’ve been thinking that there’s a third factor that produces both — the ability to ask useful questions.
Indeed, the title of today’s post is a quote from Pablo Picasso, who seemed both creative and insightful. His point — computers don’t help you ask questions … and questions are much more valuable than answers.
So, how do you ask good questions? Here are some tips from my experience augmented with suggestions by Shane Snow, Gary Lockwood, Penelope Trunk, and Peter Wood.
It’s not about you — too often, we ask long-winded questions designed to show our own knowledge and erudition. The point of asking a question is to gather information and insight. Be brief and don’t lead the witness.
You can contribute to a better answer — even if you ask a great question, you may not get a great answer. The response may wander both in time and logic, looping forward and backward. You can help the respondent by asking brief, clarifying questions. Don’t worry too much about interrupting; your respondent will likely appreciate your help.
Remember your who, what, where, when, how … and sometimes why — these words introduce open-ended questions that often result in more information and deeper insights. Be careful with why. Your respondent may become defensive.
Don’t go too narrow too soon — decision theory has a concept called premature commitment. We see a potential solution and start to pursue it while ignoring equally valid alternatives. It can happen in your questions as well. Start with broad questions to uncover all the alternatives. Then decide which one(s) to pursue.
Dumb questions are often the best — asking an (open-ended) question whose answer may seem obvious often uncovers unexpected insights. Even if you’re well versed in a subject, don’t assume you know the answer from the respondent’s perspective. He or she may have insights you know nothing about.
Be aware of your ambiguities — even simple, seemingly straightforward questions can be ambiguous. Your respondent may answer one question when you intended another. Here’s a simple example: what’s the tallest mountain in the world? There are two “correct” answers: Mt. Everest (if you measure from sea level) or Chimborazo (if you measure from the center of the earth). Which question is your respondent answering?
Think of parallel questions — I’m reading a Kinsey Millhone detective novel (U is for Undertow). One of the important questions Kinsey asks herself is, “why were the teenage boys burying a dog?” It gets her nowhere. But a slight tweak to the question — “Why were the boys burying a dog there?” — provides the insight that solves the mystery. (Reading detective novels is a good way to learn questioning techniques).
Clarify your terms — my sister is an entomologist. She knows that there’s a difference between a bug and an insect. I use the terms more or less interchangeably. If I ask her a question about bugs, she’ll answer it in the technical sense even though I mean it in the colloquial sense. We’re using the same word with two different meanings. It’s a good idea to ask, “When you talk about bugs, what do you mean?”
Think about how you answer questions — when you respond to questions, observe which ones are annoying and which ones lead to interesting insights. Stockpile the interesting ones for your own use.
Silence is golden — when speaking on the radio, I might say “over” to indicate that I’m finished speaking and it’s your turn. In normal conversation, we use body language and tone-of-voice to make the same transfer. Breaking the expected etiquette can lead to interesting insights. You ask a question. The respondent answers and turns it back to you. You remain silent. There’s an awkward pause and, often, the respondent continues the answer … in a less rehearsed and less controlled manner. Interesting tidbits may just spill out.
Don’t be too clever — Peter Wood probably says it best, “A few people have a gift for witty, memorable questions. You probably aren’t one of them. It doesn’t matter. A concise, clear question is an important contribution in its own right”.
I’ve read Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion at least three times over the years. Every now and then I go back and re-read a chapter at random. Each time I do, I learn (or re-learn) something useful. Here’s an interesting study that I re-discovered on my last excursion.
The study goes back to the days when students stood in long lines at college libraries to use photocopy machines. (Yes, we actually copied physical pages rather than saving electronic pages to our hard drives). On particularly busy days — just before the end of a term, say — you might stand in line for well over an hour.
Some researchers decided to study a fairly basic question — under what conditions would students allow another student to cut into the line? Using the terminology of communication, persuasion, and compliance, the research question might be phrased: What communication techniques are most effective in persuading students to comply with a request to cut into the line?
The researchers sent students to the head of the line to test out three different messages. The students randomly asked:
A) May I please cut in line ahead of you?
B) May I please cut in line ahead of you because I have a doctor’s appointment and I’m really in a hurry.
C) May I please cut in line ahead of you because I really need to cut in line.
Being good researchers, you might create three hypotheses:
1) Message A will generate the lowest compliance rate — the message contains no reason for cutting in.
2) Message B will generate the highest compliance rate — the message contains a compelling reason to cut in.
3) Message C’s compliance rate will fall somewhere between A and B — the message contains a reason but it’s illogical.
As it happens, you would be right on Hypothesis 1. Students in the line were much less likely to comply with the request when the would-be cutter offered no reason.
On Hypothesis 2, you would be partially right. A compelling reason — the need to visit a doctor — does generate much higher compliance rates.
But does Message B generate the highest compliance rate? Well, … no… and here’s the surprise: the compliance rate for Message C was just as high as that for Message B. It appears that the logic behind the reason is not so important. The mere fact that you give a reason seems to be the important point.
Look a bit more closely at the three messages. Messages B and C contain the word because. Message A doesn’t. It seems that the students in the line responded to that specific word. If they heard because, they knew that a reason would follow. The nature of the reason didn’t seem to matter much. Just stating a reason — no matter how illogical — was sufficient to gain greater compliance. With Message A, students didn’t hear the word that introduces a reason and, therefore, were less compliant.
So the word because can be an important persuader in and of itself. If the person you’re speaking with hears the key word, they expect that a reason will follow … and they may not inspect it very closely. It’s sufficient that a reason is stated.
Of course, this doesn’t work on all occasions. If you come home with lipstick on your collar and reeking of whiskey, you better have a much better reason. In more mundane situations, however, remember the power of because. Why should you remember it? Well, just because.
Bernard Ferrari, who has written a lot about listening skills, has identified six “archetypes” of bad listeners. As I read through the descriptions, I realize that I make some of these mistakes all too often. In fact, for one of these — I won’t say which — I thought, “Boy, that sounds exactly like me. Could it be that I’ve been a bad listener for all these years?” I hope you’re a better listener than I am. However, you may spot yourself in some of the following descriptions. If you do, you’ve still got plenty of time to take corrective action.
The Opinionator — may appear to be listening closely but is really just trying to judge whether what you’re saying conforms to his existing opinions. If it does, you’re OK. If not, the Opinionator is ready to squelch your ideas. Not a good person for helping you develop innovative but fragile ideas.
The Grouch — doesn’t like other people’s opinions and doesn’t want to waste her time listening to them. Through body language and via the things she says (and doesn’t say) she’ll let you know that she thinks you’re a fool. A hard person to get through to.
The Preambler — long-winded, prone to giving “stealth speeches” that are disguised as questions or introductions. May use slanted questions (or other rhetorical devices) designed to steer the discussion and get the answer he wants. Interrupting him may be your only defense.
The Perseverator — talks much, says little. What she says doesn’t advance the conversation but it does take time. By filling the time, she leaves you with less time to advance your cause. She may also simply talk past you — not acknowledging or responding to your points.
The Answer Man — always has an answer to everything, even before the question has been fully formed (or agreed to). Providing an answer before the question is asked suggests that he doesn’t really care what you have to say. He’s so eager to impress, that he’ll jump ahead of you. The Opinionator needs to be right; the Answer Man needs to impress.
The Pretender — appear to be engaged and listening actively but, really, they’ve already made their minds up. It’s hard to spot a Pretender during a conversation — they’re good at pretending. It’s only afterwards, when they do the opposite of what you expected (or do nothing at all), that you realize that they were just pretending.
Do you recognize yourself in any of these? If you do, you might try Ferrari’s 80/20 rule — a good listener speaks about 20% of the time and listens about 80% of the time. I find that hard to do; I’m always tempted to jump in with opinions and solutions. But when I do succeed in listening more and speaking less, I make better decisions and fewer mistakes.
This article is adapted from Bernard Ferrari’s, “The Executive’s Guide to Better Listening”, McKinsey Quarterly, February 2012. Click here for the full article.
I struggle to be a good listener. When I’m engaged in an intense conversation, I’m often: 1) Framing my response; or 2) Thinking about a solution to the problem at hand. Of course, when I’m thinking about something else, I’m not really listening — I’m maneuvering. More importantly, I’m not being persuasive. If the other side thinks I’m not listening, they’re less likely to be persuaded to my point of view.
So I was pleased to find a recent McKinsey white paper by Bernard Ferrari titled “The Executive’s Guide to Better Listening”. (Click here). As Ferrari points out, “Listening is the front end of decision making.” If you want your company to be more innovative, you’ll need to make a number of critical decisions. If you’re a good listener, you’ll make better decisions and be more persuasive. That’s the best double play since Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio.
So how do you become a good listener? Ferrari suggests three critical skills. First, show respect. Respect breeds confidence and trust. (This is essentially the same lesson that Greek rhetoric teaches — build trust first). If you’re a manager, you probably have a complex set of responsibilities. You can’t know everything about every facet of your domain. By respecting your teammates, you will naturally draw them into the conversation and learn from them. If you simply jump to a solution (as I sometimes do) you short circuit the entire process. Not only do you miss out on any advice about the current situation, you also teach your colleagues not to offer advice in the future. This doesn’t mean you should avoid incisive questions. Au contraire, the more the better to keep the conversation flowing.
Second, keep quiet. Ferrari suggest a variation of the 80/20 rule — let the other person speak about 80% of the time while you speak only 20% of the time. (This also works when you’re on a date — always encourage your partner to speak more than you do). This is a particularly hard one for me. I want to jump in and share my opinion because I know it’s … well, brilliant. But often times, I wind up answering the wrong question or chasing an irrelevant tangent because I’ve spoken too soon. As Ferrari notes, it’s important to take your time: “…if a matter gets to your level … it is probably worth spending some of your time on it.”
Third, challenge assumptions. This doesn’t just mean that you challenge other people’s assumptions. It also means that you encourage your colleagues to challenge your assumptions. As Ferrari writes, “… too many executives … inadvertently act as if they know it all … and subsequently remain closed to anything that undermines their beliefs.” Ultimately, “The goal is common action, not common thinking…” So, be explicit. Let your colleagues know that you don’t know everything and welcome their questions, especially the challenging ones.
I’ve found that it’s not easy to master these three skills. But when I do succeed, I learn more and, frankly, I have more fun. That makes me a better manager and a better teammate. And that makes my company more innovative.
Many of my articles focus on persuasion – how to persuade other people to do something because they want to do it. Today, let’s look at how not to be persuasive. I’ll again use Jay Conger’s article (click here), along with my own observations.
According to Conger, there are four common methods for being unpersuasive.
1) People attempt to make their case with the up-front hard sell. State your position and then sell it hard. When someone tries this on me, I just get stubborn. I’m not going to agree just because I don’t like their approach – even if I think there’s some merit to their argument. I push back simply because I don’t like to be pushed on.
2) They resist compromise. If you want me to agree with you, I first want to know that you take me seriously. I want to know that you’ll listen to me and accept my suggestions – at least some of them. If you blow off all my suggestions … well, no deal.
3) They think the secret of persuasion lies in presenting great arguments. I often run into this with technical people. They may think that the merits of their argument (or their product) are so clear and convincing, that they don’t need to “sell” the idea. It’s so obvious I’ll be compelled to agree. Again, I just don’t like to be compelled to do anything. Logic is necessary but not sufficient.
4) They assume persuasion is a one-shot effort. I’ve never been successful at selling much of anything with just one visit. The old wisdom still applies: listen first, establish your credibility, and then start to build your case … listening for concerns and suggestions as you do.
Bottom line: persuasion requires patience and persistence. Take your time.