Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 43;   October 25, 2006:

What Makes a Good Question?

by

In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
A hearing in the U.S. Senate, in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is responding to questions about appropriations.

A hearing in the U.S. Senate, in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is responding to questions about appropriations. Confrontational questioning rarely elicits complete truth. Photo courtesy U.S. Senate.

Suddenly, everyone in the room felt the tension. On the surface, Harriet had asked a simple question: 'When will Marigold complete the Phoenix test suite?' It wasn't her tone; it wasn't even the question. Everyone wanted to know the answer. And it wasn't Terry's answer — he responded coolly: "Friday, we think."

Everyone was tense because of the fear that Terry might lose control, and because everyone knew that he would have provided the answer without being asked. Harriet's question was gratuitously challenging, and everyone knew the answer would be embarrassing for Terry.

Gratuitous challenges are just one of many kinds of questions that cause tension at meetings. But what makes a good question? Here are some insights to help you frame questions that advance the conversation.

Unnecessary questions are expensive
An unnecessary question is one that you could have answered yourself if only you had given it a little thought. Unnecessary questions derail the meeting and waste time. But the asker pays the highest price: degraded reputation. Most unnecessary questions result from not thinking, from inattentiveness, or from obsessive attempts to prove one's value.
Off-topic questions are frustrating
Unnecessary questions
derail the meeting
and waste time
A question that takes the group away from its task can be frustrating to everyone, especially if the meeting is running longer than anticipated. Once people feel frustrated, work quality declines. For the rare off-topic questions that do need to be asked, either wait for the right moment, or ask for the group's permission.
Confrontational questions lead to destructive conflict
When you set up a confrontation, you increase the chances of destructive conflict. Whatever happens next is usually bad news, and doesn't advance the group to its goal. Some askers of confrontational questions don't realize what they're doing. Most do. To be safe, be self-effacing. Err on the side of too much courtesy and too much respect.
Wait a bit
When you do have a question, let it age a little. You might think of the answer, or if someone else asks it, you'll get the answer. If no one does ask, you can.
You don't have to know the answer
Some feel that to really score points, we must know the answers to our questions. Then, when people don't have an answer, the asker can come to the rescue. The most likely outcome of such an approach is resentment of the asker. Ask questions only when you sincerely want the answers.
Ask brilliant questions
Truly brilliant questions open up new vistas, or they rescue the group from blind alleys. To generate brilliant questions, isolate an assumption everyone is making, and ask yourself, 'What would happen if that weren't true?'

Maybe some of you know some other techniques for asking good questions. What are they? Go to top Top  Next issue: Let's Revise Our Rituals  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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