The art of asking questions

Asking is as important as answering

Think back to your time growing up and in school. Chances are you received the most recognition or reward when you got the correct answers. Later in life, that incentive continues. At work, we often reward those who answer questions, not those who ask them. Questioning conventional wisdom can even lead to being sidelined, isolated, or considered a threat.

Because expectations for decision-making have gone from “get it done soon” to “get it done now” to “it should have been done yesterday,” we tend to jump to conclusions instead of asking more questions. And the unfortunate side effect of not asking enough questions is poor decision-making. That’s why it’s imperative that we slow down and take the time to ask more – and better – questions. At best, we’ll arrive at better conclusions. At worst, we’ll avoid a lot of rework later on.

Aside from not speaking up enough, many professionals don’t think about how different types of questions can lead to different outcomes. You should steer a conversation by asking the right kinds of questions, based on the problem you’re trying to solve. In some cases, you’ll want to expand your view of the problem, rather than keeping it narrowly focused. In others, you may want to challenge basic assumptions or affirm your understanding in order to feel more confident in your conclusions.

Consider these four types of questions each aimed at achieving a different goal:

+ Clarifying questions help us better understand what has been said. In many conversations, people speak past one another. Asking clarifying questions can help uncover the real intent behind what is said. These help us understand each other better and lead us toward relevant follow-up questions. “Can you tell me more?” and “Why do you say so?” both fall into this category. People often don’t ask these questions because they tend to make assumptions and complete any missing parts themselves.

+ Adjoining questions are used to explore related aspects of the problem that are ignored in the conversation. Questions such as, “How would this concept apply in a different context?” or “What are the related uses of this technology?” fall into this category.

+ Funneling questions are used to dive deeper. We ask these to understand how an answer was derived, to challenge assumptions and to understand the root causes of problems. Examples include: “How did you do the analysis?” and “Why did you not include this step?” Funneling can naturally follow the design of an organization and its offerings, such as, “Can we take this analysis of outdoor products and drive it down to a certain brand of lawn furniture?”

+ Elevating questions raise broader issues and highlight the bigger picture. They help you zoom out. Being too immersed in an immediate problem makes it harder to see the overall context behind it. So you can ask, “Taking a step back, what are the larger issues?” or “Are we even addressing the right question?”

In today’s “always on” world, there’s a rush to answer. Ubiquitous access to data and volatile business demands are accelerating this sense of urgency. But we must slow down and understand each other better in order to avoid poor decisions and succeed in this environment. Because asking questions requires a certain amount of vulnerability, corporate cultures must shift to promote this behavior. Leaders should encourage people to ask more questions, based on the goals they’re trying to achieve, instead of having them rush to deliver answers.

(Tom Pohlmann is head of values and strategy at Mu Sigma. He was formerly chief marketing and strategy officer for Forrester Research. Neethi Mary Thomas is engagement manager at Mu Sigma.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate