When I started out in my career, the key to success was having the right answers. If the boss had a question, he expected me to have the answer—or know where to get it. It seemed like the ones who advanced in their careers the quickest were those with the most answers.
But as I began to ascend the corporate ladder, I discovered that the key to success had begun to shift. It became less and less about having the right answers and more and more about having the right questions.
In the age of Google, answers are the easy part. You can look up virtually anything and have the answer almost instantaneously. But this only happens if you know how to ask the right questions.
If you’re going to be a successful leader, you are going to have to learn how to ask good questions. Here are seven tips for taking this skill to the next level.
1. Ask open-ended questions
Questions you can answer “yes” or “no” are closed-ended. They don’t generate discussion and they rarely yield any insight. By asking open-ended questions, you get far more interesting insights.
For example, instead of asking, “Are you happy with your results?” you might ask, “Why do you think you got the results you did?” The first question can only be answered “yes” or “no.” The second question invites reflection and starts a discussion.
2. Get behind the assumptions
Every business decision is based on assumptions. If you don’t understand these assumptions, you may make a bad decision. It’s often helpful to ask yourself first—and then your colleagues—, “What are we assuming in this scenario?”
Then you need to keep peeling the layers off the onion until you get comfortable with the assumptions. This is where people often make mistakes. Their logic may be impeccable, but if it’s built on faulty assumptions, it will lead to a faulty conclusion.
3. Get both sides of the story
It is so easy to hear one side of the story, act on the information, and then be embarrassed when you find out that you only had half the facts.
I have done this hundreds of times, I’m sure. I think I am getting better at getting both sides of the story, but I still consider myself “in recovery.” I have to constantly remind myself, There are at least two sides to every story.
4. Ask follow-up questions
Avoid the temptation to comment on every question. Sometimes I like to see how many questions I can ask in a row without commenting. It’s amazing what you can learn when you do this.
And it makes your comments or decisions much more informed. Often you don’t get to the real meat of an issue until you’ve gone several questions deep.
5. Get comfortable with “dead air”
Most people get uncomfortable when things get quiet. They feel the obligation to fill the space with chatter. You can let this work to your advantage by just keeping your lips locked and your ears open.
When you do, you will often find that people volunteer amazing amounts of information that you would have never obtained any other way.
6. Help people discover their own insights
One of the best ways to mentor others is to ask rather than tell. Yes, you can pontificate to your subordinates, but your insights will not be as meaningful to them as they are to you. You can accomplish far more by leading them with good questions.
One of my favorites, especially in the wake of a mistake or disappointment, is this: “What can we learn from this experience that might be useful to us in the future?”
7. Understand the difference between facts and speculation
A former boss told me, “Make sure you tell me what you know and what you think you know, and make sure I know the difference.”
People make all kinds of statements that they think are based on the facts. These should immediately cause your radar to go off. Often you will have to ask, “Do you know that to be a fact?” If so, “How do you know?” or “Can you provide me with the source for that statistic or claim?”
Finally, when you are asking questions, take notes. It communicates tremendous respect for the the person you are interviewing. It is also very helpful when things get quiet. You can go back over your notes and discover new questions you haven’t yet thought about or asked.