How to ask a question

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Lawyers are taught never to ask a question to which they don’t already know the answer.

The smart ones also know that the right question to ask is the one that gets them the answer they want.

The issue with this approach is that one of the ways we try and make sense of situations and the world around us is by asking questions.

If the questions we ask lead to pre-planned answers then they don’t really help us gain an insight into the situation and look for alternative explanations.

A more insidious approach to questioning can literally re-write your memories.

The psychological scientist Elizabeth Loftus studies false memories. She found, for example, that showing people a situation – for example a car accident and then asking them a question like “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other” results in much higher estimates of speed than when the word smashed is replaced by hit.

In the same situation, if she asked them whether the blue car that drove past had something on its roof, people were more likely to say they had seen a blue car, even though the actual colour might have been green. The question in this form had distorted their memory.

Pollsters can use this approach to influence how you answer their polls. If they couch their question in the form of a idealogical position or in relation to a well known person, people are more likely to support it than when the question is posed in the form of a cost that they need to pay.

For example, the questions “Should we do whatever it takes to maintain the existing trading relationship with the EU” vs “Are you willing to pay X billions in order to maintain the existing trading relationship with the EU” may result in different and contradictory ratings of commitment.

If you are doing anything in business – trying to see if a new product has market demand, working on a culture change programme, or trying to transform operations – you probably want the questions you ask to give you useful and actionable information.

That means you need to try and ask questions that don’t have an inherent bias or lead the person in a particular direction.

For example, if you ask someone whether the government should force an outcome versus whether they should regulate it, many people will react viscerally and negatively to the word force and perhaps in a more nuanced way to the word regulate.

No one likes to be forced, but many will appreciate the need for regulation.

Finally – if you want to know whether there is demand for a product – there is a particular line of questioning that is very useful.

Don’t ask someone whether they want your product. Instead, ask them to describe how they currently approach the area of business that your product is designed to improve.

If they have a problem in that area, they will tell you what it means for them – and if your product really does solve that problem you may be on the right track.

How they currently do something is also the best indicator of how they are likely to do things in the future. If they are very conservative and risk-averse, you will not convince them to become innovative risk takers just because that is how you work.

If you really want to understand someone, ask them what they do or have done – not what they are going to do.

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