From the archives —”The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge”—Thomas Berger
In our fast-paced world of virtual meetings and overly packed calendars, communication for most managers involves an endless rut of “report and update” meetings. In these meetings, each party is responsible for reporting out updates on their progress, results, issues, etc. One by one, each person delivers prepared status updates that may or may not be the exact same updates they delivered a week ago. The meetings are usually so packed with updates (or the façade of new information) that, in the interest of allowing everyone time to share their updates, no one has time to ask questions.
There is no greater error than failing to ask questions.
Asking questions can be an art, a skill, and a tool depending on the purpose. In every situation, I believe if you ask 3 more questions than you’d previously prepared to ask, it will completely change the outcome of the communication. Three is truly the magic number for questions. When you ask three additional questions, you’re investing in information. Three questions shows you’re not superficially interested in the topic.
Here are three instances where three questions make all the difference:
- To build rapport. Whether in an interview or engaging with a potential new customer, the objective is to build rapport. A warm friendly tone, eye contact, and delivering compliments will likely help build a positive impression, but to build a meaningful relationship you must find out what the other person is passionate about and (hopefully) identify shared common interests. One question won’t get you there. One question will give you superficial information in the direction of something interesting.
As an example, someone may share that they love cooking. That’s valuable information that can be useful in building rapport, but two more questions might take you in a different direction. When asked what they like to cook, they may struggle a bit to answer what kinds of recipes they like the most. And then the third question (“so, what makes you love cooking so much?”) reveals that what they love isn’t actually cooking, but the fact that they like cooking with their teenage children who are often busy with school activities and active social lives. The bigger story is that the kids are nearing graduation, and she loves cooking because it’s one hour a night when the kids give her their full attention, and she feels like she’s passing on life skills and wisdom. Three questions took us from bonding over recipe ingredients to bonding over the emotional changes we experience during life phases. Three questions turned into a deep, meaningful bond.
- To understand. When learning new information, it’s natural and necessary to ask questions. It takes far more than three questions to learn about a topic, but the Three Question Technique works when you’re seeking to confirm that you understand something new. The trick here is to ask three confirming questions. When learning to park on a hill, most people learn that they should park, engage their emergency break and turn their wheel away from the curb (if parking uphill). Anyone can memorize those steps, but it’s more likely that the steps will commit to memory when you understand why.
“We engage the emergency brake just in case the regular parking brake fails, correct?”
“And we turn the wheel in one direction when parking uphill vs downhill, correct?”
“We turn the wheel away from the curb so that if both brakes fail, the car swerves away from traffic, right?”
The questions make it clear that memorization isn’t the goal; understanding the why is the goal.
- To find the truth. The Three Question Technique is arguably most effective when digging for the truth. Gut instinct is real. When your gut tells you something is amiss, it’s key to ask enough questions to detect the truth. Sales people are familiar with asking 3 questions when qualifying a sale (timeline, decision maker, budget, etc). If someone is really ready and committed to making a purchase, they don’t fumble the answers to those questions. When seeking the truth in business, the trick often is to ask the same question three different ways. For example, when questioning if a product is really ready for launch, a key stakeholder may ask “So you’re saying the product will be ready to launch by June?” Then, they could follow-up with “So, on June 1st, the product will begin generating revenue?” Finally, the last qualifying question essentially asks the same thing, but includes a pre-close. “Great, so can we schedule an email blast to automatically be released on June 1 with a link to purchase the product?” When pressed with the same question three times and asked to commit to the answer in a meaningful way on the 3rd round, you can easily assess confidence level.
The art of asking the right questions is priceless. Each question turns into tiny nuggets of data that can be mined for diamonds worth of information and insight. Asking the right questions of the right person at the right time can be life-changing. But it all starts with one question. The answers you have are only as good as the questions you’ve asked.