Good leaders usually know how to ask the right question at the right time and in the right way. Asking the right question at the right time is generally a function of the leader’s subject-matter expertise and ability to apply that knowledge to the situation. On the other hand, asking the question in the right way has more to do with interpersonal skills. Typically, the MBA curriculum emphasizes the development of subject-matter expertise to the exclusion of interpersonal skill development. This means MBAs may graduate with an understanding of what questions they need to ask but not know how to ask them in a way that is impactful and that helps differentiate their performance from that of their peers. With this dilemma in mind, I want to share with the MyeEMBA readers some of my thinking about what it takes to ask a value-added question.
The key to asking good queries is developing an understanding of interrogative behaviors and question structuring. In the following sections, I use behavioral negatives to describe practices that one should avoid and structural positives as those things one should adopt when trying to learn how to ask good questions. Both sections are prescriptive, which is helpful for initial learning. However, there is no substitute for taking the content from each section and adapting it to meet your own needs after developing an understanding of the basics.
Most people view the following questioning behaviors as negative and something to avoid. Questions seldom serve a useful purpose during a meeting or conversation when used to:
• Dominate a Discussion or Meeting – Such dominance, if persistent in multiple situations, usually leads to a bad reputation; or at the very least, it prevents others from asking high-value questions.
• Demonstrate or Establish Importance – Frequent references to VIPs, prestigious meetings or one’s credentials can result in others’ developing an unfavorable impression.
• Accuse or Judge Others – Openly accusing or judging others can create hard feelings and displeasure among coworkers and others.
• Demonstrate Knowledge – Prefacing questions with long, drawn-out statements demonstrating one’s knowledge can cause others to have a disapproving opinion.
• Discredit Someone – Making someone else look bad by asking questions to show how little they know or how unprepared they are can lead to a loss of respect by others.
• Substitute for Preparation – Covering the lack of preparation with tenacious questioning often displays a lack of readiness to discuss a topic rather than being knowledgeable.
These behaviors seldom make a question value added. Conducting a mental debrief of past meetings or conversations to see if you or any other participant exhibited these behaviors is a good starting point for behavioral change. Furthermore, establishing ground rules for meetings can help participants in larger groups avoid these behaviors. However, it is much more difficult to bring about the change when these behaviors appear in small-group settings or conversationally. In all cases, though, the behaviors start with the individual and so must the change if they are to be effective and long lasting.
Generally, good questions add value to a meeting or conversation. In a Harvard Business Review Blog Post, “How to Ask Better Questions,” Judith Ross identifies seven criteria that can make a question value added. In the context of an MBA program – and using her criteria, the following items illustrate how good questions can help add value by:
• Creating Clarity – During a meeting to review a team assignment, you could ask a team member, “Can you help me understand what you are trying to say in this paragraph?” rather than, “This paragraph makes no sense.”
• Constructing Better Working Relations – Instead of “Did you complete your part of the assignment?” ask your teammate, “How is your part of the assignment going?”
• Helping People to Think Analytically and Critically – After reviewing the requirements of a class assignment, ask the team, “What are the consequences of doing the assignment this way rather than how we discussed it in class?”
• Inspiring People to Reflect and See Things in Fresh, Unpredictable Ways – After viewing another team’s presentation, ask your team, “Why did the other team’s approach work?”
• Encouraging Breakthrough Thinking – At the conclusion of a class-project planning session, ask the team, “Can we do this in another way?”
• Challenging Assumptions – After completing a team project, ask your team, “What do you think will happen if we share our work with one of the other teams?” The assumption is that teams should never share their project work.
• Creating Ownership of Solutions – When a team member is not fully engaged in the team’s assignment, ask him or her, “Based on your experience, how should we proceed?” rather than, “Are you going help?”
Asking value- added questions during a meeting or conversation is a skill one can acquire. Acquisition starts with an understanding of questioning behaviors and question structure. Mastery, however, requires practice. MBA students can achieve mastery by taking advantage of the various meeting opportunities, including class sessions, to observe how others ask questions and to practice their own questioning skill development.
Do you have behavioral negatives or structural positives you want to add? Do you have other suggestions for what makes a value-added question? Please share them with the MyeEMBA readers by adding a comment below.
About the Author:
Dr. Rodney Alsup is the creator of the MyeEMBA blog. His goal is to help MBAs live and work smarter.