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Great Questions

Great Questions can:

  • Provide critical information in their answer.
  • Make your solutions and effort much more effective and cost efficient
  • Allow you to build rapport with clients, staff, management and stakeholders
  • Improve your negotiating and persuasion skills

We explored:

  • The difference between a good question and a great question
  • The rewards and the costs of your questioning ability
  • Whether there's methodologies for questions you can apply
  • The Question as part of a larger conversation

Panelists

Soozey Johnstone – Method 9
Tracey Rankin – Alchemy Research
Jeremy Yuille – Meld Studios
Moderated by Brendan Lewis – Founder of the Churchill Club

The Insights...

What are the rules for asking great questions?

  1. Always keep in mind the outcome or objectives you’re trying to achieve whilst asking questions – what’s going to be different as a result of having this conversation
  2. Consider the target audience – how do you need to frame questions for them specifically
  3. Listen - don’t interrupt. Be present and engaged
  4. Plan 
  5. Non-verbal cues and the rapport you build with a person are just as important. Make respondents feel comfortable as they’re more likely to open up
  6. Start broad and funnel down to be more specific questions
  7. Only use open ended questions – don’t ask yes/no questions or you’ll shut down the conversation
  8. Avoid double barreled questions (where you’re asking two questions in one)
  9. Avoid asking leading questions
  10. Silence is the most powerful question of all. It can be a far more effective way to gather information as people always look to fill in the gap.
  11. Avoid using ‘ why’. Children ask why. This places the respondent into a child-like situation which you don’t want. Instead, ask “what is it about that?”
  12. Avoid order bias. What you discuss first can impact the answers you get later on, particularly if you’ve made someone defensive.
  13. Be conscious of your own bias, judgements and emotional state
  14. To avoid defensiveness consider asking a projective question. For example instead of asking “what would you do in this situation”, ask “what would most people do in this situation”
  15. Consider where you ask questions. If it’s a curly conversation, consider getting out of a small enclosed room – try a café or out walking 

The role of silence

Silence is the most powerful question of all as it allows the space for people to reveal themselves. Also consider using other non-verbal cues. For example, as an alternative to asking someone to elaborate on their response, you might instead lean your head to the side slightly or raise an eyebrow. 

Managing that problem solving mentality

Often our gut instinct is to behave as the problem solver as opposed to asking additional questions to delve into the essence of the problem. By adopting a problem solving mindset you risk shutting down opportunities. It’s important to listen – but to listen without a view to responding, which is how we typically listen. 

What methodologies are there for asking questions?

Precision questioning – a structured series of questions you go through to get an answer. For example, the first is a gateway question “am I the right person to be discussing this with.” 
 
The military use an appreciation approach to determining better quality information. This involves asking the question ‘so what’ in response to answers to deduce more information.

Design thinking has an approach called “How might we” (HMW), which is used often as the pivot point in a workshop where you’re trying to go from “this is the situation we’re in” to solving the problem. It typically starts by beginning with your Point of View or problem statement, and then breaking that larger challenge up into smaller actionable pieces. By framing questions with HMW it suggests that a solution is possible and offers the chance to answer them in a variety of ways. It gives the perfect frame for innovative thinking.

GROW Model: 
GOAL - what are we working towards, what’s going to be different as a result of this. Requires research and planning
REALITY – what do you know, what it is you have discovered or why are you going into this conversation
OPTIONS – all the questions you may ask. Rapport building opportunity
WRAP-UP – what are the next steps

How can improvisation be used to facilitate insights?

Ideally you would rehearse for the reality you’re about to face, particularly where there’s a lot at stake. Valuable if:
•    You’re pitching to a potential client that could transform your business
•    For something that’s going to be costly to your business
•    When recruiting somebody that’s going to be critical in assisting you increase revenue

A good starting point is how do you want these people to feel as a result of their conversation with you?

Improvisation, like a question, permits you look at the world through a different frame, using your body to do so. However, it can be difficult to work out how to ask a question through improvisation as it’s quite an unstructured process – it’s more of a channel for answering a question. This technique is often referred to as Body Storming by design thinkers. It challenges the respondent in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise be prepared for. 

What other ways are there to have people answer questions?

You might ask someone to act something out, draw or build you something in order to access different forms of knowing they have in relation to the question.  There are multiple ways to elicit meaning from a question you put to someone. Great question asking is about generating ‘meaning’. It’s about collecting narratives. This can be done via video recordings, asking people to write stories, collect images, or using other multi-sensory processes like creating with Lego or plastacine.

Boundary objects can also be helpful in unlocking meaning. Consider asking the respondent to bring something particular with them to the interview that means something to them. For example, in conducting a research piece with Brits on how they felt about roast potatoes, one respondent brought along a teddy bear to convey what roast potatoes meant to her. It’s about using symbols and metaphors that talk to the respondent’s drivers and emotional needs.

Other than intuition, is there a methodology for knowing the appropriate time to ask a particular question?

Around 95% of communication is non-verbal so it’s important to look at all the other cues. Intuition is a good guide to allow you to do this. For example, look at how the respondent holds their hands, where they look when they answer, and how long before they respond. This will give you a guide as to how comfortable they are. 


Is there space in a professional setting for asking personal questions?

Some topics are sensitive. Asking sensitive questions can at times help build rapport. Often the way to ask comes down to using an appropriate tone of voice and lies in the non-verbal cues communicated. It’s important not to make them feel judged, uncomfortable or to block up. Use “I” comments as opposed to “You”. For example, “I feel as though there’s something going on in the room that you’re not sharing with me”, instead of “you seem”. 

How important is the setting?

Very important. Find somewhere where the respondent feels comfortable and relaxed, like someone’s kitchen or a café. Formalising the situation may elicit very different responses.

When resources are limited, how can you establish which questions to ask?

As far as a methodology it often falls to intuition. The more you do this, the more you refine your approach. Pick which questions will generate more external learnings or generate more data. Also consider the priority of those questions - which should you be asking first.  


What are effective methods for recording answers to questions?

Taking notes as a question asker can be time consuming and distracting. It can also be misread by the respondent. For example, if you don’t record notes in relation to a response they give, they may feel like they’re not providing you with valuable information, or the answers you want to hear. 

Consider using an audio or video recording. There are a number of apps that will allow you to easily do this from your smartphone. It’s important to advise the respondent that you will be recording the answers, but only for analytical purposes. Recordings also provide you with the opportunity to listen back to how you asked the questions – enabling you to improve your question asking ability. 

Where you are collecting sensitive or personal information, recording may frustrate the natural flow of the conversation if the respondent feels uncomfortable. An alternative method is mind-mapping. That is writing one or two words to record a response. This allows you to be focused on the non-verbal cues, such as how the respondent is breathing or how their shoulders are positioned, whether they look away at certain moments. 

If you have the resources available, consider bringing in a separate note taker.

Can the rules be broken in order to get the desired outcome?

Research is part science, part art. There is a tension that exists between employing a prescribed methodology and using intuition. This assumes that intuition isn’t methodical and is without intention. However, our intuition is a highly evolved part of our emotional brain and the more we fall back to our intuition, the better we become at using it and changing the rules. 


So what is a good question?

•    One that moves you in the right direction
•    One that generates the results you are seeking


And remember…
•    Questions move things along
•    Plan, plan plan -  and use your intuition
•    Silence is a powerful tool in allowing people to reveal themselves


Other Resources

The Secret Phrase Top Innovators Use, Harvard Business Review interview with Tim Brown on How Might We design thinking methodology   

Interviewing Users – How to uncover compelling insights, Steve Portigal