Asking questions: Less accusatory, more empowering

How To Ask Better Questions

If you really stop and think about it for a few seconds, the whole idea of “asking good questions” is really important to (a) society and (b) work. (“Relationships” would fit here too.) No one knows everything — although there are sadly many people who think they do — and as a result of your brain not containing every iota of information in world history (sorry), you oftentimes need to ask questions to get at the heart of something. In business, you probably need to do this roughly every 3-5 minutes, because (a) information is often incomplete, (b) communication is often poor, and (c) everyone loves to try and thrive in a sea of ambiguity. In relationships, it’s even more important; if you’ve been with someone for years, you know they’re pissed even if they’re not saying it. So you gotta find a way to get at the idea of “Why are you pissed?” without using that exact wording, which could send the conversation into a tailspin.

Big picture, then: asking questions properly is very important. But how do you do that?

Here’s an article from Fast Company; it’s mostly interesting and good, although it drifts into buzzword-land a few times. (“Questions should cause the person to stretch” is meh, because the idea of “stretch assignments” is mostly bullshit.) Right at the top of the list of ways to ask questions better, though, is a good one: “Questions Should Empower.” The first line talks about how most questions come off as accusatory.

Ding ding ding.

This is something I have absolutely, positively never understood about human nature. You get a job and literally before you’ve even established yourself — where the only thing people know about you is through the hiring process itself — boss-level people are asking you questions that assume you’re a total idiot and you did something purposefully to fuck up the process.

I used to work for John Merrow over at PBS; nice guy and overall a good manager, but when I started, he did this all the time: accusatory questions (“Well, WHY did that happen?”) as opposed to trying to think about a broader strategy or idea, etc. He actually threatened to fire me about a month in, right before I went to New Orleans with some friends for the weekend. That trip ended up being a train wreck as a result. That’s for another post.

I personally think the whole accusatory questions thing comes from two places:

  • Most people are brought up/trained on the idea that business should be “hard” and “you gotta survive it” and “it’s for strong people” — this is why businesses love to throw money at generals to come speak to their troops, er, employees — and so a “shoot first, ask real questions later” mentality is totally fine for most people.
  • A lot of guys I’ve worked with over the years have honestly no long-term memory; I generally think you’re happier in business if you don’t. So what happens is, they blast you for something with a series of accusatory questions where you can barely speak in response, and then eventually they say “Well, do it this way!” and storm off (terrible fucking management) but honestly, 30 minutes later when you see them in a meeting, they don’t even remember that interaction. They got back to their desk, saw a new deliverable from on high, and started chasing that.

I think it would be great if we could start asking real questions that moved towards a strategy or solution — i.e. empowering either the organization or the person being asked — but I also worry about human nature and general business mentalities in this sense too. I don’t know if it’s possible.

Ted Bauer

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