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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Asking Questions - An Experience

I was just reading Tom Haskin's post that's a response to February's Big Question. He asks:

What if we have been asking useful questions all along when our client tell us we should be more valuable?
I feel compelled to share a story that relates to this. My style in most engagements is to ask a series of questions that helps to really get at the heart of what is needed, what should be done, etc. Often, a client, peer, employee, etc. will start with a vague notion and by asking good questions you can bring them towards clarity. Often along the way, you ask them things that cause them to go in a very different direction.

However, using that style one time really hurt. I was in a meeting with a major Type A manager. We had spent about an hour together with me helping the conversation through lots of questions to take a vague concept to something quite different and much more concrete than the vague concept expressed at the beginning of the meeting. I was feeling great. What I got was:

Okay, Tony, you've been asking me questions for an hour and I've been giving you answers. What value am I getting?
I was stunned and I could hardly formulate a response. Tom's point brought that situation back.

And, I think Tom's point about what questions to ask at what point is on the money. In fact, this month's Big Question made me realize that I was meaning to ask pragmatic questions, which was not clear in the original question.


Harold Jarche said...

I once used a method called, Quescussion as an experiment during a class. I later used this question technique with my boss. It became very evident that our Western culture is one where only those in power (teachers, bosses, clients) ask the questions. After about half a dozen questions to my boss, he kicked me out of his office for impertinence.

Questions are powerful and in themselves reflect the power structure.

Tom Haskins said...

Tony: You're not alone in this. All us consultants have fallen for extreme questioning at some point. We think we are helping the clients move from vague/scattered frustrations to clear/focused intentions. They think we are being non-committal and hesitant because we are asking so many questions. Cynical clients say "all those consultants do is borrow your watch to tell you what time it is". I suspect we ask too many questions without taking a stand -- when we are afraid of being told things like: "we tried that already and it didn't work", "the last consultant advised us to do that", "our rival took that approach and went out of business" or "is that the best you can come up with?"

Tony Karrer said...

Harold - interesting point. Hadn't really thought about the power issues, but you are quite right.

Tom - I'm of the opinion that most questions have a point of view, they are pushing you in a direction, but you are right that you can hide behind them and not put yourself out there.

Often, I will ask, "Have you considered X?" as opposed to "You might want to do X." I wonder if one is inherently better than another?