Was that a good question?

Earlier this week, someone said to me: “That’s a good question, Jane” and went on to explain why they couldn’t answer it.

Why am I asking this question?
Picture Credit: Lizzie Everard


I wondered if it really had been such a good question, and if not, how I could have made it better.

I think that what makes a good question is the reason why you are asking it. We are all taught to ask “Why?” and some consultancy manuals suggest asking “Why?” five times, although I don’t think that’s such a great idea. The real “Why?” to ask is “Why am I asking this question?”

There are all sorts of reasons why we ask questions.

You might think that the reason we ask a question is to get some information.

How do sales in the North compare with sales in the South?

What are the major risks on this project?

When do I need to give you the first draft?

If you are asking such a question, it’s worth a moment of self-reflection,  to make sure you are asking from genuine curiosity and in a spirit of learning. And that you are ready to hear the answer, and potentially be changed by it.

However, often in business, the reason why people ask questions has nothing to do with learning anything or obtaining information. This becomes rapidly apparent to the person questioned. I bet you’ve been on the receving end of questions that are designed not to elicit information, but to make you look stupid and the questioner look clever:

“So, how are we going to do that then, when you said earlier in the presentation that the maximum growth you could achieve is only 6%?”

Depending, a bit, on the tone of voice in which it’s asked, this is a question of the “Gotchya” category. The questioner doesn’t want the answer. They are trying to demonstrate that your thinking is flawed, and that they are better than you.

…a question to make me look better than you…

It’s very easy for “reviews”, of deliverables, say, to become clogged up with such “gotcha” questions. So, in a review, ask yourself: am I asking this question because I am going to do something with the answer, or am I simply aiming to demonstrate that my thinking is sharper than everyone else’s in the room.

The question I asked, which stimulated this line of thought, was “Where are we going with this?”, which, on balance I think yes, was a good question.

I welcome your thoughts.

Categories: Conversations which work

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