There is an art of crafting questions. Or perhaps it is even better to say creating questions is akin to baking in your kitchen – you have a certain number of ingredients, and when combined well, you get something much greater than the sum of parts.
The first group of ingredients is the obvious ones. You know them as who, what, where, when, and how. (You may have just thought to yourself – what about why? Well, we're going to cover that one in the next lesson.)
Ok – here are the usual suspects.
Who: focused on people.
What: all about things and ideas.
Where: location, location, location.
When: directed at the timing.
And How: this is regarding our means.
Now, these words don't have an exclusive lock on the question business – there's plenty of room for their cousins like; can, will, would, are, is, and does.
The next group of ingredients is about our place in time, which includes the past, the present, and the future.
When we are asking about the past – our primary goal is likely understanding or uncovering.
Just listen: What did we believe success would be when we started out? When was our first planning meeting? How have we approached this issue in the past?
You can hear that regardless of the type of question – they were all about understanding the past. This is important in doing diagnostics, case studies, and post-project debriefs.
Now let's look at the present. This is often about informing others or solving an immediate problem at hand.
Listen in: Who else in the company has an access code we can use? Where does this report need to be delivered to? How can we get Emily into today's meeting? What is keeping your team from being more efficient?
You can sense the immediacy of the subject. There is an urgency in the now. We're solving something or informing someone.
The third then is the future. This is where possibility and potential live. Possibility being if something is possible and potential being how big something can be.
Take a listen to the difference in these: What skills will be most valuable to have on the team before we launch? How can we deliver this service in half the time? Where will we see the greatest need for drivers during the event? What will you be most proud of 10 years from today?
These questions help us to uncover future problems, new possibilities, and clarity of direction.
Another approach is question dichotomies, where you can use opposites to uncover helpful questions.
If we're continually focused on people – take a moment to ask about the process.
Spending time on outcomes? Look for contributors.
Is the discussion caught up in future success? Use questions that uncover hurdles to be overcome or lessons from the past.
This is a simple approach where the main thing is to be aware of the current focus of the conversation; then you look for ways to ask about the opposite side of the coin.
The final thing to highlight is that our main ally in asking helpful questions is uncertainty – and not from a lack of confidence but from a recognition that there are many things we don't know.
Someone comments that "John is just looking out for himself." Our default may be to take that as a fact – but with a mindset of uncertainty – we ask questions like "How do we know for sure?" or "Are there times when he has put others first?"
Doubting your own certainty is different than doubting yourself. Great question askers are confident in themselves, and uncertain in what's known.
Your assignment is to identify a situation you find yourself in where questions will be helpful. Think through the types (who, what, when, where, how) and times (past, present, future) and craft some questions that you wouldn't normally ask – but that could serve the situation well.
In the next episode, we'll explore some of the pitfalls to be aware of with questions.