I found some great Memorial Day weekend reading in this month’s Harvard Business Review, and as I travel this weekend I’ll be thinking more about one article in particular, The Surprising Power of Questions by Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John. The authors break the issue of questioning down to two main problems:
“Most of us don’t ask enough questions, nor do we pose our inquiries in an optimal way.”
It reminded me of a question I have addressed to some of my clients:
“Are you interested or interesting?”
For instance, I have had clients who wanted to be more likeable, but they just couldn’t seem to make warm connections with others at work–or, sometimes, even, outside of work.
I know that if it feels like someone isn’t interested in me, it’s pretty hard for me to make a warm connection. So being interested is at least as important as making sure that you seem interesting.
One executive I worked with who was very task-focused said if a person seemed “uninteresting” to him, he didn’t bother to ask many questions because it wasn’t instinctual. I might not be able to get him to be interested in another person right away, but I can show how skillful inquiry can create connection and build trust. Asking the right questions also helps prevent surprises–such as problems that need to be addressed.
And some types of questions are particularly important. Research by Alison Wood Brooks identified four types of questions: “introductory questions (‘How are you?’), mirror questions (‘I’m fine. How are you?’), full-switch questions (ones that change the topic entirely), and follow-up questions (ones that solicit more information). Although each type is abundant in natural conversation, follow-up questions seem to have special power. They signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, care, and want to know more.”
Here are some of their recommendations for good querying:
- Favor follow-up questions: They can uncover new information and show that you care
- Know when to keep questions open-ended: In some situations, these can help keep people from feeling interrogated in a conversation
- Get the sequence right: Some situations, such as a tense meeting between two people, may call for starting with more difficult questions, while other are best when sensitive questions come last. (See the article for more detail)
- Use the right tone: Except in specific circumstances, keep the question informal
- Pay attention to group dynamics: Both willingness to answer questions and perceptions of people who ask questions differ when in a group setting
I recommend checking out the article, which expands on this subject in a way that is relevant both in work situations and in our personal lives.
Remember that forging personal connections and engaging those around us requires that we are curious, and that we follow that curiosity to where it leads. Be interested, and not just interesting.