3 Questioning Skills That Works For Managers
Ask the wrong question and you get the wrong answer. It seems simple as black and white. Or is it?
Questioning skills are important communication skills. More than that, I believe it is a powerful skill that all managers need to acquire in order to excel.
Some years ago I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Singapore during which there were two workshops that had a particular impact on me. The first workshop was carried out by a senior representative from Hewlett Packard (HP) and he talked about HP’s corporate culture based on the principles of “Managing b Wandering Around” (MBWA).
The second workshop was led by a dynamic personality, Ho Kwon Ping, the CEO of the Wah Chang Group of Companies. Ho later went on to be one of the first Southeast Asian business leaders to appear on the cover of Fortune magazine. During that workshop, Ho commented on MBWA, saying that at his company, the norm is MBAQ, which he explained, stands for “ Managing By Asking Questions.”
I could not agree with Ho more and I’m a firm believer that asking good questions is one competency that enhances the power of a manager and enables her to draw results from people.
Asking questions is a managerial skill particularly relevant in the managing staff. The different frame of reference between your subordinates and you makes it important for you to know when and how to ask certain questions, especially with regards to a managing good questions could be categorized broadly into three areas:
- Getting Understanding
The ability to ask the right sort of questions enables you to get into the minds of your subordinates as well as peers, and thus, helps you understands their way of thinking. You will also be able to see the rationale behind their arguments, suggestions, or positions as well as their thinking pattern by probing into their mindset.
You have to understand that your staff or peers may think form a different perspective or level. Particularly for staff, it is nearly impossible for them to operate on your level all the time.
It becomes necessary then, when you are unclear, to ask questions as it helps clarify possible misconceptions. Your staff will realize that in order to work better with you, they first need to deeply probe all areas of their suggestions before proposing them.
Some of my favorite questions of getting understanding include, “Why do you say that?”, “How did you arrive at that conclusion?” or “how do you support that argument?”
- Getting Information
Getting information is a little different from getting understanding. Here we have to ensure that we get the right and relevant data from the people who have it.
To do that, you therefore need to be equipped with good questioning skills, especially when you have to make decisions, solve problems or implement plans. Getting the right and relevant information will determine whether you will eventually make good decisions, solve problems competently or implement plans properly.
As your staff or peers have a multitude of accessible information which is not necessarily accessible to you, you need to ask specific questions in order to get the data you need.
A certain degree of experience and knowledge is required before you know what questions need to be asked. It is important for a manager to be careful about accepting vague or doubtful facts. You may therefore need to look further to see that the information given to you is accurate. For example, recently when I asked my programmer to find out the price for a printer cartridge, he gave me two quotations.
Doubt immediately set in when I noticed that the two quotations were substantially different. I probed further by asking if the cheaper quotation was for new and original cartridges and not for recycled ones. He came back later to tell me that he had made a mistake on the data he had given me. Had I accepted the information without asking more specific questions, I would have gotten the wrong information which might have led to a wrong decision.
- Questioning is Training
Questioning is a way of training your staff to use their grey matter, that is, to think.
Too often managers like to tell instead of ask. If you tell somebody, you basically provide the person with instructions on what needs to be done. She may or may not understand the rationale or the reason for the instructions, unless of course she asks. And even if she does ask, the rationale provided by you may or may not be understood or accepted by her.
Asking questions however, is way of helping your staff go into a thinking process to arrive at conclusions and decisions that will be more acceptable to her. Therefore, asking a series of questions to guide a staff along a particular line of reasoning is a powerful way of training your staff.
Let’s take for example the case where a new employee comes to you, saying, “We should put an advertisement in XYZ magazine?”
Although you are rushed for time (as always) and could always fend her off by saying, “No, I have already decided to use ABC,” a better manager will realize that by saying this you are not teaching her anything.
Instead, ask her for the reasons behind her suggestion and ask specific questions on criteria and rationale and you will be able to guide her towards a point where she will realize that choosing ABC over XYZ would be a better decision.
In this instance, you can ask question like “Why do you choose XYZ?”, “What is the target market?”, “What percentage of XYZ readers are within our target market?” etc. Remember, “People commit to what they themselves create,” hence, if they create their own solution guided by your questions, they tend to be more committed to the decision, that would be the case if you had just told her what to do.
Moreover, doing so would also help educate her on the way you think, plus in a subtle way, show her how much homework she needs to do before coming to you t discuss an issue.
If you have a standard line of questioning, your staff will soon come to recognize the way your mind works. And once they understand that, chances are they will make it a point to come better prepared the next time they want to discuss to other management issues with you.
What if you don’t have good question skills? The answer is simple. You not only fail to be a good manager as you may not understand your subordinates’ thinking and rationale, but you will also be in the dark on many things.
So, if you don’t ask good questions, it will cost you and your organization money.
What Makes Good Questions
There are three major categories that constitute questions formation:
- Open-ended and close-ended questions
- Low threat and high threat questions
- Process and content questions
- Open-ended and Close-ended Questions
An open-ended question is phrased in a way that requires the other person to provide an opinion. It cannot be answered with a “Yes” or “No”. It is particularly useful in situations where you need her to provide her point of view without being directive.
Open-ended questions are an expression of opinions and feelings that will draw the person out, and hence enable you to learn about them as well as their thoughts.
The answer to your questions will often tell you where the obstacles to agreement and acceptance are between you and the other person. This is a particularly good line to use when dealing with your staff. Questions like “What do you think?”, “How do you feel?” are powerful open-ended questions that will enable you to get important feedback. Open-ended questions begin with a WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY, WHO and HOW.
Close-ended questions, on the other hand, require a specific answer – “Yes” or “No”. This method of questioning is suitable in cases where you need to confirm a certain point, for example, “Are you saying that working overtime today would not be possible?”
A normal strategy in using open and close-ended questions is to start off with an open-ended question that will draw points of view, and then use close-ended questions to confirm specific points.
However, note that the method of questioning is highly dependent on the situation and time.
- Low Threat and High Threat Questions
Low threat questions are questions that do not threaten the answer and they are regarded as questions of facts which are generally of public knowledge. It does not put the person into any position or forces the person to take a stand. An example of low threat questions are, “How long does it to take for you to come to work?” This is a question you might want to start off when counseling a staff who comes to work late. On the other hand, a high threat question forces the other person to take a position and to state opinions that can result in a potentially damaging situation if the answer is not favorable. In the case of questioning a staff who comes in late, a high threat question could be “Why do say it’s difficult to get transport to come to work in the morning?”
Low threat questions are therefore factual questions, and high threat questions are feeling questions. As a strategy, especially when counseling staff, one should always begin by asking low threat questions and subsequently move on to higher threat questions.
- Process and Content Questions
Content questions are questions that obtain specific information in relation to a situation. They generally have two purposes:
- To obtain a specific piece of data. Example, “How much does this computer cost?”
- Content questions also help you to determine the accuracy of the information that you might be getting. For instance, if you ask “How many megabytes does this hard disk have?” and if the answer is “Oh, I think it’s around 40 which is what this type of computer comes with,” then you’d know that the answered did not give you a precise answer, and therefore, doubt would be cast.
Content questions are good for collecting information. However, it is only useful if one understands those information or has knowledge about it. If for instance, you are a computer illiterate, then you’d know that those answers may not be sufficient for you to make decisions or recommendations.
Process questions are questions that examine the logic and the rationale behind a decision or recommendation. Process questions require the answered to explain her rationale, and in explaining the rationale she has to provide data which is relevant to the issue at hand.
An example of a process question would be, “When you recommended this computer, what criteria were you looking at?” or “What other alternatives are you considering?”, or “What are the possible problems if you buy the computer you recommended?”
Hence, process questions enable you to analyze not just the data but also the thinking and the logic of the person which you may or may not accept.
Hence, both questions would be useful, particularly in assessing recommendations or suggestions put forward by staff or peers.