The art of conversation is quite a skill. It’s also a helpful measure of someone when you first meet them, whether in an interview, a meeting or in your local pub. That first conversation can tell you a lot about a person, helping you to gauge the type of person they are. Even if we don’t like to be judgemental!
One thing’s for certain – good conversations don’t flow easily without questions.
If in Doubt, Ask a Question
Whenever I’m at a social or business event, if the conversation seems to stall, I’ll ask a question. First, it shows that you’re interested; secondly, it helps you assess whether you’re likely to get on with the other person, especially if you’re hoping to collaborate with them.
Whenever you find yourself in a similar situation, my rule of thumb is: If in doubt, ask a question!
Asking versus Telling
There’s a big difference between consulting, training, mentoring and coaching. The first three involve telling people things. In a consulting capacity, I’d be advising you on what to do. In my training programmes, I’m imparting knowledge for your benefit but I’m still in ‘telling mode’.
It’s the same with mentoring. When I’m with a mentee, I’m sharing experiences gained from over 15 years of mentoring. The mentee chooses which bits to apply to their situation from input from the mentor.
Coaching, however, is all about questioning, not telling.
Coaching and mentoring are terms which are often used interchangeably but are, in fact, quite different skills. When I’m coaching, I’m assisting you to move forward and you stay in control of the agenda and decision-making. The key is knowing how to ask the right questions; powerful questions that get to the heart of the issue. The skill is knowing what questions to ask and when.
My clients often joke that when they ask me a question, I ask them a question in response! That’s because I’m being a coach, not a consultant. My questioning empowers people to find those answers for themselves.
How Do We Ask Questions?
Asking questions should be easy; in general conversation, it usually is. However, for that deeper understanding of a situation, the skill is in knowing how to ask questions and in what way.
With many different types of questions available, the key is finding those high-quality, open ones. There are two ways to do that:
- Be a good listener. Really hear what people are saying. The more you listen, the more questions will occur to you during the conversation.
- Be curious. Nosy, even! Curiosity is another big driver of knowing what questions need to be asked.
Types of Question and Questioning Styles
Different types of questions work in different situations.
- Open versus Closed Questions
Good quality questions, used in coaching, are open. Closed questions end a conversation quickly because they only need a short answer. For instance: ‘Do you like ice cream?’ has a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. ‘What is your favourite flavour of ice cream?’ has a single answer. By using an open question/statement, like: ‘Tell me what you think about ice cream,’ you’ll receive a longer, more thoughtful response.
Most coaches know how to ask good quality open questions; they’re designed to explore your situation. The quality, relevance and sensitivity of that open question can determine whether they’re a good coach or not. So, when you’re choosing to work with a coach, consider whether it feels like you’re being interrogated or more like a natural conversation. A good coach who’s careful at choosing the right questions will make it feel like the latter.
- Depth of Questions
Asking superficial questions can help to break the ice in most situations. Once you’ve got a sense of the person and what you both want to discuss, start asking deeper, open questions to get to the heart of the matter.
My personal favourite ‘super question’ is: Tell me about… For me, as a coach, that is the most inviting of questions, and works better than: What do you think about…?
- Keep Neutral and Open Minded
One word of caution – beware of leading questions! If you’ve made an assumption based on what you’ve heard, be careful about what you ask next. For example, if someone says, ‘I argued with my brother a lot when we were little,’ you might assume that they clashed, asking, ‘Why didn’t you get on?’ They may have got on very well but often bickered too.
Remaining neutral and open minded helps you refrain from making judgements that risk the questions going off course. It’s a skill that takes time to master. When I’m mentoring new coaches, they tell me that remaining neutral is one of the hardest things to learn.
Also, be aware of biases. Most of us have unconscious bias that can unwittingly lead us to ask insensitive or unhelpful questions. Instead, we need to ask questions that allow you to freely go wherever the answer takes you.
- Context is Key
Imagine you’re going to an important meeting or interview. Do you prepare questions in advance? They can be a helpful aide. For me, I prefer to be led by the previous answers. This leads into an elegant conversation, like a dance, where my clients are leading me – and, unconsciously, themselves – to that all important solution.
Habit 5 of Stephen Covey’s ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ is: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” When you understand the context of the other person, then you can gauge the next question to ask.
- Beware of asking ‘Why’!
If you have children, you probably got tired of them constantly asking: ‘Why? Yes, but why?’ when they were young. That innocent curiosity is important for their learning even if it drains you in the moment!
Asking ‘why?’ to an adult can be a confrontational question, which results in a defensive response. Instead, I ask: ‘What was the reason for…?’ This gentler approach results in a constructive, considered answer.
- ‘I Don’t Know’
Many people answer questions with ‘I don’t know,’ even if they do! This response is often a habit, rooted in school experiences when the consequence of not knowing the answer was better than getting the answer wrong.
It’s a protective instinct either because they don’t want to admit the truth or they’re afraid. If you’ve asked a factual question, then ‘I don’t know’ may be true. A question that invites someone to disclose their opinion, though, may need to come from a different angle. If the person you’re questioning keeps repeating ‘I don’t know,’ it is likely that there’s a protective reason. You’ll need to find a different route.
- Hypothetical Questions
These are a brilliant and safe way to explore scenarios without actually going there!
- 5 Ws and an H
Sometimes referred to as the “reporters’ framework” this journalistic questioning formula is ideal for gathering information for problem-solving:
My next blog will be on K is for Knowledge, closely linked to Questions. As is F is for Facts that will follow that one. They all link together, so do look out for them!
Let’s Have a Curious Conversation!
If you’re fed up with being told what to do and you think some good questions will help you to explore more options, then come and have a curious conversation with me.
Let’s explore how I can assist you in opening up your curiosity and asking relevant questions, helping to provide you with a deeper understanding of the important things in your life.
Of course, if you have a question you’d like to ask, then a curious conversation is a great place to do that.