Ask more questions! sellers are admonished. Ask better questions! leaders and coaches are reminded. Questions seem to be a prompt in many fields, from medicine to parenting. But why?
There’s a universal assumption that questions will yield Truth, generate ‘real’ discussion topics or realizations, or uncover hidden gems of information or important details. Good questions can even inspire clarity. Right?
I’d like to offer a different point of view on what questions really are and how they function. See, I find questions terribly subjective and often don’t get to the Truth.
WHAT IS A QUESTION?
Let me start with Google’s definition of ‘question’: a grouping of words posed to elicit data. Hmmmm…. But they don’t often elicit accurate data. Here’s my assessment. Questions are:
- posed according to the needs, curiosity, goals, and intent of the Asker;
- interpreted uniquely and unconsciously, according to a Responder’s world view;
- potentially ignore more important information outside the Asker’s purview.
Here’s my reasoning:
- Language: Questions are posed using words and languaging unique to the Asker. Using their own (subjective) intent and goals, their own idioms and word choices, Askers assume Responders will accurately interpret them and respond along expected lines. This expectation is most easily met between folks who are familiar with each other, but less successfully with those outside the Asker’s sphere of influence. Too often Responders interpret a query quite differently than intended, offering responses far afield from the Asker’s intent.
- Listening/brain: All incoming words enter our ears as meaningless sound vibrations (see my book on this topic), “puffs of air” that eventually get translated according to historic circuits based on our mental models that have been set during our lifetimes. In other words, and similar with the language problem, Responders may not accurately translate incoming questions according to the intent of the Asker. The way Responders hear and interpret the question is at the mercy of the Responder’s brain circuits.
- Curiosity: Often an Asker seeks data, thoughts, according to his/her desire for knowledge. It might be for research, interest, or ego – to exhibit their intelligence or prove their commitment. Yet given the way information is stored and retrieved in the brain, the question may capture some degree of applicable data, or a whole lotta subjective, unconscious thoughts that may or may not be relevant.
As you can see, the stated goal of questions – to extract useful, relevant data – has a reasonable chance of failure.
TYPES OF QUESTIONS
Here’s my opinion on a few different forms of question:
Open question: To me, open questions are great in social discussions but there’s no way to get precise data from them. What would you like for dinner? will prompt an enormous variety of choices. But if the fridge only has leftovers, an open question won’t work, and a closed question “Would you like me to heat up last night’s dinner or Monday night’s dinner?” would. Open questions cause brains to do a transderivational search that may unearth responses far afield from the Asker’s intent and the Asker is out of control.
Closed question: I love these. They are perfect when a specific response is needed. What time is dinner? Should we send answers now or wait until our meeting? Of course they can also be highly manipulative when only limited responses are offered for potentially broad possibilities.
Leading question: Don’t you think you rely on conventional questions too much? That’s a leading question. Manipulative. Disrespectful. Hate them.
Probing question: Meant to gather data, these questions face the same problem I’ve mentioned: using the goal, intent, and words of the Asker, they will be interpreted uniquely as per the Responder’s historic stored content, and extract some fraction of the full data set possible.
Given the above, I invented a new form of question!
When I began developing my brain change models decades ago, I realized that using conventional questions would most likely not help me achieve my goal of facilitating Others through their brains to discover their own best answers. Knowing that our brain’s unconscious search for answers (in 5 one-hundredths of a second) leads to subjective, historic, and limited responses along one of the brain’s neural superhighways, I spent 10 years figuring out how to use questions to help people find where their unbiased answers reside.
Since incoming words get translated according to our existing neural circuits, the trick was to use specific words in a specific order so the brain would be led to find the best existing circuits. This proved especially helpful in
- data gathering to discover a more expanded range of choices,
- decision making to uncover each element of consideration as matched with values and outcomes,
- habit/behavior change when seeking to understand and modify the patterns and neural circuitry underlying the current behaviors,
- leadership, sales, coaching when leading others to discover routes to new choices.
One of the main problems I had to resolve was how to circumvent a brain’s automatic and unconscious preferences to make it possible to notice the broadest view of choices.
Language to create objectivity
Since questions (as words) are automatically sent down specific neural routes, I had to figure out a way to use language to broaden the parameters of routes the brain could choose from, expand possibility, and circumvent bias as much as possible – a difficult one as our natural listening is unwittingly biased.
To this end, my Facilitative Questions use specific types of words to facilitate distancing the Responder from the emotions and biases. Let me show you how an objective viewpoint differs from a subjective one and why it’s preferred for decision making: See yourself having dinner with one other person. Notice the other person across from you (the Self/automatic/subjective/unconscious modality). Then mentally put yourself up on the ceiling and see both of you (the Observer/objective/conscious modality).
If you’re having an argument with your dinner partner, where would you rather be – ceiling or across the table – to understand the full data set of what was going on so you could make personal adjustments?
On the ceiling, where you’d see both of you. From this meta position, you’d be objective, free from the feelings and biases that guided the argument along historic circuits. From Observer you’d have the best chance to make choices that might resolve your problem. Try it for yourself! Don’t forget to go back down to Self to communicate warmly. My clients walk around saying ‘Decide from Observer, Deliver from Self.’
So when developing Facilitative Questions, I had to put listeners into Observer. I played with words and found that these cause Responders to unconsciously step back (i.e. meta) to take an unbiased, less subjective, and broader view.
- how would you know if…
- what would you need to understand differently…
Change the goal
I also had to change the goal of a question, from my own curiosity and need to elicit data to helping the Other discover their own answers.
“Why do you wear your hair like that?”
is a conventional question puts the Responder directly into Self, while
“How would you know if it were time to reconsider your hairstyle?”
enables the Responder to step back, look at current and past hairstyles, note their situation to see if it merits change, and have a more complete data/criterion set with which to possibly make a change – or not. This not only provides a full set of unbiased possibilities, but it encourages trust between Asker and Responder and doesn’t push a response.
Questions follow steps to change
The biggest element I had to figure out was the sequence. I figured out 13 sequential steps to all change and decision making and I pose the Facilitative Questions down the sequence. Here are the main categories:
- Where are you and what’s missing? Responder begins by discovering their full set of givens, some of which are unconscious.
- How can you fix the problem yourself? Systems don’t seek change, merely to resolve a problem at the least ‘cost’ to the system. To minimize any ‘cost’ involved, it’s best to begin by trying to fix the problem with what’s familiar.
- How can you manage change without disruption and with buy-in? Until it’s known what the fallout of the ‘new’ will be, and there’s agreement, no change will occur.
I’ve trained these questions globally for sales folks learning my Buying Facilitation® model to help prospects become buyers, and for coaches and leaders to help followers discover their own best answers.
If your job is to serve, the best thing you can offer others is a commitment to help them help themselves. Facilitative Questions can be used in any industry, from business to healthcare, from parenting to relationships as tools to enable discovery, change, and health.
It takes a bit of practice to create these questions, but the coaches, sellers, doctors, and leaders I’ve taught them to use them to help Others discover their own excellence. I encourage you to consider learning them. And I’m happy to discuss and share what I know. firstname.lastname@example.org My hope is that you’ll begin to think about questions differently.
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharon-drew.com She can be reached at email@example.com.