For leaders trying to improve results, it’s easy to get caught up in complexity.  Every day there is a deluge of new ideas, concepts, models and paradigms aimed at improving performance and leadership.  Surprisingly though, we may find that one of the best improvement opportunities lays in a simpler technique that we all have available to us.  Namely, asking better questions.

Human beings have protective filters to deal with the ongoing flood of information and messages coming at them.  Without these filters people would have sensory overload and be unable to think clearly.  These same filters generate auto responses to certain questions.  For example in a retail setting the statement, “Can I help you?” will often solicit the response, “No, just looking”.  Or in a restaurant, “How’s your meal?”, can generate “Fine, thanks”.  The auto response kicks in without thought, leading to no engagement or conversation with the customer or prospect.

The anatomy of questions

A well known and very useful categorization of question types is open versus closed questions.  Closed questions invite simple or one-word responses, and include questions like, “Can I help you?” or “What time is it?”.  Closed questions can be useful to get precise and quick responses, but don’t generally engage the respondent or start a conversation.  They also don’t take much effort on the part of the questioner.

 Alternately, open-ended questions tend to elicit broader and more conversational responses.  Questions beginning with the words “what”, “how” and “why” are often of this type.  Questions like, “What are your top priorities this quarter?” or “Why is your product better than your competitors?” are examples.

But even open-ended questions can sometimes generate closed responses like, “How are you today?” or “What can I help you with?”.

An alternative is to use slightly less common questions, ones that do not fit into the realm of auto responses.  Even some closed questions can apply here.  For example, in a retail environment the question, “Hello, have you been to our store before?” or “Are you looking for something in particular?”.  These questions are slightly better simply because they are less common and force the listener to think more than they would in response to a common, “Can I help you?”.

Taken one step further, an open question that is also uncommon or unusual may be the best way to open a conversation and learn most from the other person.  Again using a retail example, a question like, “What brought you into our store today?” or “How can I make your visit worthwhile today?” could solicit better responses.

Powerful questions in action

In customer situations asking powerful questions sometimes take courage, but at the same time they can generate fantastic opportunities to learn important information and grow the relationship:

  • What is it you like best about dealing with our company?
  • What frustrates you about dealing with our firm?
  • If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change in your business in the next year?
  • How would your life change if you could remove your number one business issue?

Questions like these have the potential to unlock new insights and information from customers, while demonstrating the questioners concern for the success of the relationship:

 The same can apply to questions leaders and managers can ask their employees:

  • What would be the perfect role for you five years from now?
  • How could this firm do better at supporting you and your role?
  • What was your greatest learning in the last quarter?
  • What are the characteristics of an ideal manager for you?

What will you do next?

Questions are something we use every day in work and personal situations.  Asking good questions is sometimes overlooked, but is a fundamental and powerful tool in driving better results.  Recognizing that not all questions are created equal, and structuring your questions more deliberately using the guidelines outlined here may unlock new and better information and engagement with your customers, prospects, colleagues and employees.

 So what will you do next?

Article by Tim O’Connor
photo credit: milos milosevic via photopin cc