Asking Questions in Meetings

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.

Eric Hoffer

When you lead, using information to both learn and manage a group of dynamic individuals can foster better relationships within the team and create new avenues for growth within your company.

It helped to position yourself as a learner, not as someone who knows it all, or a “knower”.

When you enter any discussion, regardless of what it’s about, curiosity and openness are key. Your job in any meeting is to dig down until you uncover information you didn’t even know you didn’t know. This models the new behavior for your team.

Think of discussions as treasure hunts and information like a pyramid, at the top is the smallest amount of information, this is what you know, you are a “knower” of this information.

Early in our careers we tend to stay at the top of the pyramid. We only talk about the stuff that we know for sure and are fairly sure we understand.

This keeps us safe and makes us look “smart”.

We quickly learn we need to ask questions to make sure our pool of information grows. It takes a brave soul to not only ask intelligent questions, but to listen so carefully to the answers that she can then ask follow up questions, able to learn more than she anticipated.

The next part of the pyramid, a little larger, is the information you think you know, between you and your team, you can ask some confirming questions to make sure you are on the right track, but for the most part, you are still comfortable it's on your radar and within your teams realm of understanding.

Still further down the pyramid is the wider, larger section, this is the section that, when you are honest with yourself, you know that you don’t know. You have all kinds of questions to ask other groups outside of your team, because you need that information and you know you don’t have it. You know you don’t have the time to gain the expertise to grasp the entirety of the subject matter, but you can access the information from trusted sources, when needed.

Lastly, there is the huge base of the pyramid, often buried, the greatest amount of information is here, the information you don’t even know you don’t know. This is the good stuff. All the new information to discover. It’s like a treasure vault full of secrets ready to be discovered.

Your main job in meetings with others is to assume there are a lot of things you don’t know you don’t know and to drill down to where you are hearing that type of information. That’s when we grow and can be more helpful to our team, bringing the treasure back to homebase.

There are three types of tools you can use to dig, one is generally more effective than the others; Closed Ended Questions, Open-Ended Questions and Probing Questions.

Closed Ended Questions

Close Ended Questions are direct, giving you very narrow, specific answers. They are generally good at confirming understanding.

  • Can you

  • Have you

  • Did you

  • Will you

Closed ended questions are good for:

  • Testing understanding, either yourself or someone else: "So, if I get this qualification, I will get a raise?"

  • Concluding a discussion or making a decision: "Now we know the facts, are we all agreed this is the right course of action?"

  • Frame setting: "Are you happy with the service from your bank?"

Open Ended Questions

Open Ended Questions are more dynamic, they require a more complete and substantive answer and generally require a more reflective, complete response.

  • What

  • How

  • Why

  • Where

Open ended questions are good for:

  • Developing an open conversation: "What did you do on vacation?"

  • Finding out more detail: "What else do we need to do to make this a success?"

  • Finding out the other person's opinion or issues: "What do you think about these changes?"

Probing Questions

Probing questions are useful for gaining clarification and encouraging others to contribute more. Probing questions are usually a series of questions that dig deeper and provide a fuller picture.

Probing questions are good for:

  • seeing the bigger picture. "How does this affect our relationship with the Development Team?"

  • encouraging a reluctant speaker to tell you more information. "Sam, what are some of your key concerns around this collaboration working out?"

  • avoiding misunderstandings. "Do we anticipate any issues cropping up in the next six months?"

  • digging deeper to uncover what you don’t know you don’t know. "What are some of our blind spots? Are there any bias' we can explore that may keep us from seeing oncoming issues?"

We have all been in meetings when a client shares a fundamental piece of information that would have saved you weeks of work. Chances are the client didn’t know it was important, but instead of freaking out, reflect: What questions should you have asked to gain this insight?

From today forward turn around the burden of inquiry onto yourself.

The burden is on us to be active listeners, ask probing questions and discover the treasure trove of unknown unknowns to bring back to our team for the next meeting.

Even within our own teams the combination of probing questions and active listening can dramatically affect not only your own work, it will also show your team how to handle their own projects and teams.

For more about Active Listening read: Crucial Conversation Tools or Just Listen.

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