Mastering the art of question technique
On a recent Managing Performance Workshop one of the skills we discussed that cropped up time and again was question technique.
As any self-respecting salesperson will tell you, question technique is a key skill in the sales process.
But it’s also a critical skill for managers too.
Because by asking good questions you can:
- Check understanding
- Create buy-in
- Get people’s involvement
- Discover the root cause of a problem
- Understand someone else’s perspective
- Find out what’s going on
- Find out how your team are feeling
- Learn from your mistakes
- Help others learn from their own mistakes
- Help put people at ease
- Find out what’s important to others
- Identify people’s expectations
- Seek ideas for resolving problems
- Check on people’s progress
- Help people identify their own strengths
- Help people identify their development needs
- Encourage people to think things through for themselves
- Encourage people to take responsibly
- Help people open up to where they need help or support
- Keep difficult conversations on track
- Help people plan and prioritise
- Get to know your team better
- Build rapport
I could go on, but you get the idea…
On my workshop the emphasis was on asking questions in relation to managing performance, but the ability to ask good questions is also important in recruitment, in meeting customers’ expectations, in dealing with complaints, in coaching, so it’s a skill well worth developing.
Of course, the way you ask questions is also important; we don’t want team members (or customers) to feel like they are being interrogated.
Questions to open up the conversation
To get people talking use ‘open’ questions, starting with the words:
What, how, when, who, where, why, give me an example, or tell me about…..
This will encourage the team member to go into details and not answer yes/no.
However, “why?” is a question to use with caution; it can easily come across as judgemental if we’re not careful. Also asking someone why something happened can be too broad a question which they may not know the answer to. So, as an example, instead of asking “why did you do that?” ask questions along the lines of “what triggered your response?” or “what was your reasoning for approaching it in that way?”, “what had you hoped to achieve?”, “How did you decide?”
In the context of managing performance, e.g. in a one to one review, here are some questions to ask:
- General: What did you do, how did you do that, what results did you get, how has that helped you, what’s was the impact on the customer/team/department.
- If something worked out well: what did you do differently this time, what was the end result, how did that help others (business, colleagues, customer, etc), how will you build on this for next time.
- If it didn’t go well: how did you overcame the problem, how did that work, what have you learnt from this, what can you do/can we do to avoid it happening again, what will you do in future, what help do you need from me?
- If they’ve had a challenge: what do you think led to that, what have you done about it, what have you learnt, what support do you need from me?
- When planning forward: what will you focus on, how will that help you or others, what will you do first, when will you start, how will you know when it’s working, what milestones will there be, what obstacles could get in the way, how will you overcome these, when shall we review progress?
Listening to answers
Whilst mastering your question technique you’ll also need to listen well.
- Build rapport by looking and showing you are listening, by maintaining eye contact, nodding and using open gestures.
- Avoid taking notes while they are talking. If you need to keep a record of the conversation, you don’t need to document everything, just key points, so wait until they have finished, then make a note of the relevant key points or anything you want to come back to later.
- Watch for any hesitancy in their answers. If you’ve asked a tough question they may need time to think about it, so avoid jumping in before they’ve had a chance to do so.
- Avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions – if they don’t give you all the evidence you are looking for, or their answers don’t give you enough detail, follow up with more questions.
- Listen to what’s not been said too.
- Stem the flow of irrelevancies or hobby horses by interruptions like “I understand your point.” or “I can imagine”…. “So what can you do…?”
- Summarise their points (using their words) to show your understanding.
- Don’t be tempted to stick to pre-formulated questions; build the next question round the answer to the last.
Because we all filter or delete information, it can mean the information we receive or questions we ask very general or vague, making it difficult for others to fully understand the question, issue or action required. Often it is necessary to drill down to get specifics.
This can be the case when reviewing performance with team members. We might ask a question about a situation and they may be vague or ambiguous with their answers. We interpret their response in one way (and often make assumptions about the detail) when they mean something else. Or maybe they are being vague deliberately, as they don’t have any details to give!
For example: you ask someone how they are getting on with a task you have asked them to complete by the end of the week. When you ask them on Wednesday how they are getting on they answer “Fine”. What does that mean? Does it mean they’ve nearly finished; that they are just half way though; that they have started it but waiting for some information from someone else; that they are stuck, but too shy to ask for help; or they haven’t even started yet?
This is when we may need to do some “Fluff Busting” and I’ve written about that here.
Take action and practise your question technique
If you only do one thing:
Next time you ask one of your team for an update ask specific questions so you come away knowing exactly where they are up to.