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Hit The Ground Running

How The Most Successful People Ask Questions

The most intelligent and successful people ask a lot of questions. Here's how to use what you don't know to your advantage.

[Photo: DuMont Television/Rosen Studios via Wikimedia Commons]

Asking the right questions can mean the difference between success and failure. Unfortunately, asking questions can also feel uncomfortable.

"It can be embarrassing to admit that you didn't understand what someone said, or that you don't get it," says Heidi Grant Halvorson, associate director of Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center and author of No One Understands You and What to Do About It. "You might fear it will make you look incompetent, but that’s not true. Research has found that people who are inquisitive are generally judged to be more intelligent and engaged."

There are no stupid questions, says Dian Griesel, author of FUNDaMentals: The Corporate Guide to Cultivating Mindshare. "When you’re learning a new task that is completely foreign to you, when someone’s safety is at risk, when investing your money, or when it comes to your health—ask away," she says.

The key is to approach questions with the mind-set that they will give you information that will help improve your job performance, says Jon Acuff, author of Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work, and Never Get Stuck. He suggests going into meetings prepared to ask good questions. "Asking questions not only keeps you engaged, it allows you to contribute to the conversation and learn something new," he says.

Learner Versus Judger Questions

Some questions have the potential to catalyze breakthroughs and inspire transformations, while others lead to stagnation and demoralization. The difference lies in whether you ask "learner questions" or "judger questions," says Marilee Adams, president and founder of the Inquiry Institute and author of Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 10 Powerful Tools for Life and Work.

"Learner questions are open-minded, curious, and creative," she says. "They promote progress and possibilities, and typically lead to discoveries, understanding, and solutions."

A learner question, for example, might be, "What are my goals?" "What am I responsible for?" "How can I help?" and "What do our customers want?"

By contrast, judger questions are more closed-minded, certain, and critical, says Adams. "They focus on problems rather than solutions and often lead to defensive reactions, negativity, and inertia," she says. For example, "Who is to blame?" or "Why aren’t we winning?"

Learner questions facilitate progress by expanding options, while judger questions impede progress by limiting perspectives.

"It’s natural for individuals and teams to ask both learner and judger questions, but without learner questions, results suffer," says Adams.

End Every Meeting With A Question

Questions can also clarify expectations and make sure everyone is on the same page. Even if you think you understood your colleague or manager, there is a good chance you didn't, says Grant Halvorson; the problem arises from something psychologists call the "illusion of transparency."

"Because we know what we are thinking and feeling, and what our intentions are, we assume that it's obvious to other people, too," she says. "People think they've said more than they did, so there is a good chance you are missing something that may have gone unsaid."

Resolve this problem by repeating back to the person what you think they said, suggests Grant Halvorson. "Something like, ‘Okay, just to be sure I've got the important details . . . ’ This clears up any misunderstandings that may have arisen," she says.

Practice Question Storming

Most companies hold brainstorming sessions that identify solutions, but Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and coauthor of The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, suggests holding "question-storming" sessions that think of nothing but questions about a problem for a given period of time.

"When people care about the issue, when they have thought a lot about the issue but they are stuck, that's the point at which it's perfect to step back and say: ‘Okay, question storming time,’" he says.

Have your team generate at least 50 questions about the problem. At about question 25, Gregersen says it will stall. "I have watched this a hundred times around the world," he says. "People say: 'I don't have any more questions, I am stuck.' Keep going, because it's that pass forward that can sometimes give you some of the greatest questions."

Question storming a long series of questions gets you closer to the right questions that will give you the right answer, says Gregersen. "And that's where question storming complements traditional brainstorming," he says.