Sunday, March 29, 2015

Asking Questions

We had made an off-specification batch. The team was conducting the root cause analysis. The discussion had been going well until I came in and started inquiring about the incident. Suddenly the atmosphere changed. People were no longer open. They became defensive. This sudden change in atmosphere would have fascinated behaviour scientists, unfortunately I was no behaviour scientist. I could not even sense the change. I had stifled the discussion which was proceeding so well before I entered that room.

What is wrong here?

Over several years I have learnt that being an engineer I have tendency to ask lot of “why” questions to satisfy my curiosity. A “why” question elicits defensive response. After four back to back questions one finds oneself against a wall. After that people stop answering your questions. This seriously derails the communication process. Then, what is the alternative?

The alternative is surprisingly simple. When I first read it, I was amazed at the elegance of the solution. The “why” questions can be substituted with “what” questions or just a phrase that encourages the other person to continue. For example, if you want to ask a person “Why did you do that?” you could instead ask, “That’s interesting, what was the thinking behind that?” or “Tell me more about that”. Or you could further encourage explanation by saying “I am sorry, I still do not understand, could you please elaborate”.

Another type of questions that stifle discussion are closed ended questions. Closed ended questions are those questions that elicit yes-no or fill-in-the-blanks type response. They do not give chance to the responder to expound. A typical example of this type of question is “Is this approved?”

You guessed this right. The simple alternative to this is to ask an open ended question. That sounds simple. However, it is not. People struggle to come up with open ended questions. The good news is that it is not rocket science and can be learnt with some practice. The phrase, “Tell me more about that” could be a life saver. To benefit from people’s thinking you need to learn to listen as well.

It’s always good to conclude a discussion with asking the other person’s understanding on the discussion. This may not sound like a good idea but will help bring all involved on the same page.

Learning to ask right questions will move you closer to the Art and Science of Leadership.


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