Asking the Right Questions Begins with Us

By Sal Mistry, PhD, Management and Organizations, Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University

Learning to ask the right questions begins with a simple question that we should ask ourselves: “Am I on the right track?”

The Problem
We all seek answers. In fact, we need answers. Why? Our minds are trained at an early age to minimize uncertainty. When confronted with mysteries we ask ourselves why? how? when? questions.

As leaders, we’re confronted with – and in many cases, bombarded with – uncertainty. Uncertainty with the economy, cash flow, products, and processes. In essence, it’s hard to predict how each will behave. Faced with these problems, we seek to minimize these uncertainties by obtaining answers from people responsible for these areas. However, in the course of obtaining answers, we often do some of the following:

The Tunnel. The first place we regularly turn for answers is ourselves. That is, we ask ourselves the why? how? when? questions. In doing so, we oftentimes end up with tunnel vision — projecting our list of reasons onto the situation or person. So, rather than creating a rich picture, we imprecisely assess the situation or person. Instead of taking an outsider’s view or placing ourselves in another’s shoes – we place them in ours and then seek confirmation. Of course, the problem is that we’re not omniscient and everyone is not us.

The Funnel. Even if we get around to asking the person directly, we fear that the conversation may be long and drawn out. This belief is reinforced through great movie courtroom scenes. So, similar to a funnel we start off vague and eventually zero-in on the point. This is because in our minds, the best way to ask questions is to ask a series of open-ended questions that eventually zero-in on the source of the problem. The problem with this is that we don’t have that kind of time – and the person isn’t a witness.

The Muddle. In the course of our questions, the person may go off course. The conversation is now muddled with extraneous information. Various reasons may drive this. Culture, defensiveness, inaccurate facts, tangents – all of which hinder our ability to resolve the problem. So, more time is spent on the new unnecessary information, rather than resolving the problem.

The Solution
Learning to ask the right questions begins with a simple question that we should ask ourselves: “Am I on the right track?” Think of the countless times we’ve heard this. Originally used to describe whether a train or a person was where they/it was supposed to be, this expression is now a popular metaphor that figuratively conveys whether the person is relying on the right set of assumptions. Based on my experience, teaching, and research, the track method also serves as a novel solution that accentuates the positive and minimizes the negatives associated with the tunnel, funnel, and muddle.

The Refined TunnelNo tunnel vision. A good track to start on is asking ourselves why? how? when? questions. However, that may not be the right track to stay on. This is because it lacks validation from those closest to the problem. How we validate whether we are on the same track is by sharing our answers – one by one – to the problem with the person. Importantly, doing so places them in the expert seat – a seat that affirms their competence. After sharing each, ask a, “Am I on the Right Track?” Then, listen intently – not to refute, but to understand and resolve the problem at hand. In essence, we’re doing exactly what Einstein did – hypothesizing and then validating with supported facts. This method also harnesses the power of “decentering”; that is, moving from being locked into a constant state of self-centered perception. This form of reflection creates a more precise and rich picture about challenging and uncertain contexts.

The Refined Funnel. No protracted funnel. Drawing from previous conversations, ask closed (yes/no) and open-ended (how and what) questions. We determine which to ask first by accessing previous information we’ve gathered from this person. If we have no previous information, ask open-ended questions. If we don’t have any or all of the information needed, ask more pointed yes/no questions. This helps to narrow the field of questions.
For example, in refined tunneling we essentially asked a series of yes/no questions to test our hypotheses. Each time the person said yes or no, they helped us gain clarity by narrowing our field of options. We can now gain even more clarity by asking wide or open-ended “what” and “how” questions. If we know the person well, ask “why” questions (for motives). A good question to ask is what went into someone’s thought process or how they formulated a particular conclusion. In addition, while we’re asking questions:
– be genuinely curious
– don’t insinuate a right answer
– be aware of our word inflections – pay attention to the word(s) we’re emphasizing
– use silence to our advantage to think of areas we need clarification on

Afterwards, be sure to summarize and ask the key question: “Am I on the right track?”

The Refined Muddle. Clear actionable information. Getting sidetracked often happens. Asking ourselves two questions (consciously or unconsciously) helps to minimize this. First, what answer are we seeking (what do we want to know)? The answer to this should be ever-present in our mind when speaking to the person. In sidetracked situations, this focus will help us pivot and keep get us back on track. Second, ask ourselves what we already know (this includes information we remember/wrote during refined tunneling and funneling). Recalling what we know/wrote previously helps us draw from a (full) bank of knowledge. Of course, doing so requires a mind that is tidy and organized, an emphasis on every person being important, and every person must have a file in our brain with each file is ordered similarly: chronological first and then by importance of that event. Other tips:
– ask clear questions
– be aware of how we’re asking question
– reframe (especially when questions are not answered)

The Conclusion
Learning to ask the right questions can be an efficient exercise when we recognize that part of our job is to discover and harness the value that this information provides. The key question we should thus ask ourselves is, “Am I on the right track?”

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One Response to “ Asking the Right Questions Begins with Us ”

  1. Gautam Vangal on

    Thanks, Dr. Mistry. interesting take. your take on “the tunnel” makes me wonder if I should ignore my “gut instinct”. maybe the first/fastest answers in our head are limiting creativity. Bravo!

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