Asking good questions is better than having the right answer. Good questions elevate your team’s thinking and increase your impact. That’s better for your project, your colleagues, and, ultimately, your career.
What makes a good question? That’s subjective, of course, but all good questions have a couple of things in common–they’re contextual and cause people to think. In school, we were all trained to make everything add up. We’ve carried that over to work— and it’s not working.
Seeking the right answer is what keeps us on the hamster wheel without feeling like we’re making much progress. Being able to ask a good question, on the other hand, means you’re listening on two levels– on what’s happening right now in this conversation and on the broader dialog going on in your organization, agency, or industry.
3 Steps to Better Questions
The first step in asking better questions is the most difficult. You must ignore the urge to reflexively shoot your hand up when that “Me, me, me! Call on me!” runs through your head. Slowing down, pausing before you respond, or possibly not answering at all requires discipline. This is hard because it feels like you’re being insubordinate—a feeling many struggle with at all levels in our organizations.
The second step is active listening, which means really listening. It’s putting away the distractions and focusing on the topic at hand. Good questions typically start with seeking clarifications—”What does that mean? Slow down and explain to me again how this works?” Asking questions to improve your understanding requires a willingness to expose what you don’t know. Please know that doing this one thing can earn you major points with others in the room. They don’t know either, but were too afraid to ask.
Third, just ask a question, even if it’s not perfect. Sometimes I have trouble thinking of one or finding the right phrasing.
Back Pocket Questions
Here are a few general questions that can be used and recycled in all kinds of conversations.
- How does this initiative support our strategic goals?
- What’s the ideal skill set needed for us to be successful in this task/project?
- What’s driving this priority at the leadership level?
- How will our processes need to change?
- What should we stop doing in order to devote the attention this project needs?
- What does success look like?
- Who else needs to be included in this conversation? What perspective is not represented in the room?
- How does this benefit our end users (the public, our constituents, our customers, etc.)? Is there something we could add or subtract that would make them really love this?
- Is this scalable? If we’re successful, how would we expand it to meet bigger needs?
These are just a few of the infinite possibilities. The challenge is shifting your thinking about how to be most useful in a meeting. It’s not always being ready with the right answer. Instead, it’s being focused and sufficiently in-the-moment to ask the right questions. Change, improvement, and advancement always begin with a single provocative question.
Good government starts with you. If you can make people stop and think, you significantly improve your chances of furthering your project, supporting and building your team, and even advancing your career.
Robin Camarote is a communications strategy consultant, meeting facilitator, and writer with Wheelhouse Group. She is intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. She writes about how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow. She lives with her husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia. You can read her posts here.