My friend has a sign in her office that has been top-of-mind for me this week: “Asking questions is a mark of success.”
Cool. So what does that mean?
Taken one way, it might mean that once you’ve risen to a point of being successful, once you’ve arrived, you now have permission to ask anything. And often this will go unchallenged—I know one tricky CEO who likes to ask stupid questions just to see if his staff is willing to challenge him! He calls it his “BS barometer.” I like that.
Taken another way, asking questions may be the pathway to success. Today, I got a call about something I’ve been preparing to do, and I asked several questions to try to be ready for a meeting about it later this week. The question I really wanted to ask:
“What do I not know now that I’m going to wish I knew six months from now?”
That is, what high-impact piece of information am I missing? And this leads me into further questions about whether the bridge to get this information is long (e.g. you must learn Russian) or short (you must learn the secret handshake).
So I started thinking of the questions I like to keep in my back pocket, the kind that automatically spring to my thirsty, curious mind.
One of the things I’ve disciplined myself to do is to compartmentalize my questions into three groups:
- Thinking questions – These questions start with where, who, when, and how. They’re about facts that you can prove or disprove, and can measure objectively.
- Feeling questions – These questions start with what, and they dig into experiences and personal assessments and perspectives. Don’t merely equate feeling with emotion; consider that a feeling question is a person’s subjective sense of the external world.
- Knowing questions – These questions start with why, and they are about your core beliefs and intuition. They don’t rely on external perceptions—you know in your gut whether something is right or wrong, true or false.
I credit Shirlaws Coaching for teaching me this unique approach to questioning during a coaching skills workshop several years ago. They guide you to approach asking questions in this order, which allows a answerer to gradually move from answering from the head (logic) to the heart (feeling) to the gut (intuition).
I watched this questioning process conducted on a fellow coach and it was startling the degree biology came into play—the questioner probed with thinking, feeling and finally knowing questions, and when the answerer was done, he was just done. You could physically see the change in his body.
How do you approach questioning? Do you have a system to uncover the information you need? I find asking too many “why” questions in business up front can often put someone on the defensive, so that’s one more reason I try to use this system.
Consider testing a new product, for example. Let’s say you’d never even heard of the iPad. Here’s one way to organize your approach to learning more:
- Who is this for? How do you turn it on? How do you navigate? Who made it? Where can I get one? How can I use it? When do I need to charge it? When will I use it?
- What is this like? What is this totally unlike? What else can it do? What surprises me about this? What markets can it disrupt? What will I do with it?
- Why was it invented? Why aren’t there more products like this on the market? Why is it made in this shape and color? Why is it available only with X features but not Y features? Why am I reacting like this? Why do I like it? Why not?
So my question is this: how do you approach curiosity and questioning? How do you find out more about your world? I’m a kick-the-tires, take-it-for-a-test-drive kind of girl … I’ll get around to reading the driver’s manual only after getting stuck on the side of the road. My parents were smart enough not to get me a chem set or I would have surely blown up the garage. Instead, they shipped me off to courses in bubbleology and computer science (and this was 1984).
Once, a friend got mad at me—really, truly, angry—because I would not let him show me how to play a video game. I wanted to try it myself. And if I lost, well, I could start over, right?
Oh, no. In his mind, it was do-or-die, and he demanded I do it right the first time. Needless to say, we got in quite the tiff over whether it’s better to show someone the right way or let them figure it out for themselves.
You know which side I’m on.
I’m for experimentation. For mistakes. For more questions than answers. For try-it-before-you-buy-it. For fiddling around with all the knobs and levers until you’ve got things just the way you want them. For endless Control+Z do-overs until I finally, finally get it right.
That’s how I roll. How about you? GO.