Exercises in Clarity: Asking the Right Questions in Business

Happiness. Success. Meaningful rapports – with oneself, others, and the world.

One essential ingredient for success in business is asking the right questions. Seems trivial, but believe me, it’s one of the powerful tools the business titans use.

Richard Branson’s first question to every new business is ‘What’s the downside? And how do I protect against it?’ This is what he did when starting Virgin Airlines. As it is a big risk to start an airline he negotiated with Boeing a deal that allowed him to send the planes back if the business didn’t work. (from Tim Ferris, Tool of Titans)

Has it ever happened to you, when hearing a question, to feel something sparking inside you? Just by hearing that question you feel an entirely new world revealing itself to you; you feel, all of a sudden, both energized and ready to conquer to world, as a crystal-clear picture of what needs to be done presents itself to you. Well, I assure you, this new-found energy and clarity can spring only when asking THE RIGHT question.

Asking the right questions is a tool like any other – you need to use it properly to harness its full potential. Once you do, the right questions will bring you those wonderful ‘aha moments’ that lead to new ways of thinking and doing. They will help you make progress, make the right decisions, have new insights or set goals for what matter, or even make discoveries. With their help, you will be able to strengthen your communication skills, or build meaningful, deeper rapports; you will gain confidence, will prioritize better, or you will get a clearer direction in life. The right questions will help you solve problems; they can even change your lives or transform your organizations.

In order to master the skill of asking the right questions, all you need to do is think, focus, analyse and take time for reflection. I know, in our hectic daily lives, time for reflection seems more a commodity we cannot afford than anything else, but, trust me, once you fight for it, the results will be stellar.

Albert Einstein once said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

So, following Einstein’s advice, let’s take some time and take a deeper look into the art of asking the right questions.
You will have to take into account not only the context of the question, but also the manner in which it is phrased as well as the goal you would like to reach.

For example, ‘why’ questions might lead to defensive answers when they are not carefully formulated, or when they contain negative assumptions; “why didn’t you reach your goals?” implies the other person had a definitive, proven fault in not reaching the goals and will most likely render him/her defensive. It is the kind of question that will close the other person down to new ideas or new possibilities. His mind will work to find a plausible cause but not a viable solution. Therefore, asking ‘what change is needed to help you reach your goal?’, ‘what could help you reach your goal?’, or even ‘tell me what happened’ might be better alternatives.

Many leaders and managers, especially when their organizations go through a revamping process, focus on the problems when formulating the questions. I did that myself, too many times. Logical as it may seem – as it springs from a wish to understand and clarify the situation – this approach of asking what is wrong and who is responsible is, more often than not, flawed; it will not generate new ideas, it will not unveil brilliant solutions, it will only make people in the organization focus on what is wrong.

Therefore, you have to learn how to ask the questions that will lead you to better answers, and ultimately to better actions.

I will give you an example of the questions I ask when I am making a business decision. The case in point is about deciding whether to start on a new venture, but you could apply it, say, on deciding about taking on a new job.

  • What is my short term ROI? Is the deal financially attractive during its first year of operation? Here I have to do the math.
  • What is my long term ROI? What will my profit be over a five year period? Here I have to do the math. Yes, again.
  • What will my personal growth opportunities look like on the long term (3-5 years)? I try to answer sub-questions, if you will: what will I learn?, who will my partners and associates be?, how will my network and reach increase?.
  • Who are the people involved? Do I trust them, do I like working with them, can I learn from them?
  • How will the new venture influence my lifestyle? What will the new experiences be, will there be downsides, will I need to give up things that are important to me?

I feel that only after I’ve candidly answered these questions would I have a clearer overall view of the new venture; moreover, if the answers to all five points are satisfying, I shall be confident enough to develop a sound plan of attack

This is just a glimpse into how I, personally, try to ask the relevant questions. Keep in mind though, the questions do not stay the same. Think of them as if they were organic, alive, changing and adapting to new contexts and environments. They will change at the same pace with you or your business. Most likely, they will generate new questions, so do not be afraid of asking.

Ask! Ask! Ask! Even asking the wrong questions is better than not asking at all. Eventually, you will get to the right questions, the ones that will click inside you and give you the answer that seemed imprinted into your DNA all along.

What are the most important questions for your business? Do you have any rules by which you make decisions. Write to me: ioana@ioanastraeter.com

Keep growing,
PS: If you’d like to dive deep into the topic here are a few books that I recommend: John Maxwell, Good Leaders ask Great Questions; Eric E. Vogt, Juanita Brown, David Issacs, The Art of Powerful Questions.

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