How do people know the right question to ask? That can be a critical skill in business, especially in tech.

I just had a fascinating chat with Mathias Tölken about the challenges faced by IT leaders: how they needed to deliver the right solutions, quickly, to be seen as credible partners within their organisations. And how, to do that, they needed to ask the right questions, in the right way.

We agreed that I’d do a piece for his upcoming online summit about how to ask the right questions. Here’s my initial take.

Remember a time when you watched an experienced interviewer at work, maybe on TV. What did you notice about their questions? How did you know they were the right questions?

And… what didn’t you notice?

As a former news journalist, I can vouch for the fact that there’s a whole lot more to great questions than what you see on screen! Often, there’s been a huge amount of preparation “backstage” – as well as post-hoc editing. But all we notice is the finished soundbite.

The reality is that in order to know the right question to ask, we need to understand how questions work, and the context in which questions work. And we need to have skills in three areas:

  1. paying attention
  2. directing attention
  3. attracting attention.

In the shouty world of the internet, everyone’s attention is on attracting attention. And perhaps on attracting attention by asking a clever question.

But in order to ask the right question, the first step is to pay attention effectively. To listen well; to understand what’s being said and what’s not being said; to realise the implications of both.

David Grove used to talk about noticing “what must be there for what is there to make sense.” That makes sense to me.

The quality of your attention can determine the quality of another person’s thoughts. And that can determine their destiny.

Once you have paid plenty of attention, so that you have a good sense of how the world is for the other person, then you can direct attention with the right question.

A really powerful question. The kind of question that gets the other person thinking new and helpful thoughts. The kind of question that surfaces the information to deliver appropriate solutions – because both you, and they really understand the problem that needs to be solved.

Specifically, this is often a question which directs the person’s attention to the boundary between what they already know, and what they don’t yet know.

That kind of question is almost always the right question.

  • Comments most welcome below!

    3 replies to "How To Know The Right Question To Ask"

    • Tim Tolmachoff

      If they are riding an elephant and don’t know that yet ask them about what kind of ride is that ride – when they say bumpy they will have chance to “embody “ the bumpy and they may cognitively notice that it feels like something real and moving and maybe they will look around for the rest of it

    • Stephen Grey

      Since starting to learn about clean language, I have been noticing how interviewers on radio and TV tend to lead the conversation along predefined lines. They want to explore a particular topic, more like a police investigator than a counsellor.

    • Corrie van Wijk

      … “the boundary between what they already know, and what they don’t yet know” …

      How do you know what you don’t know?

      Scaling is a technique to find out what’s beyond your present knowledge.

      Define the space:

      “Does it have a shape?”

      “How far does go?”

      “What’s outside of this space?”

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