Sometime back I was watching a TV program on a business channel where a bunch of reputed CEOs, CFOs, COOs, etc., were the judges for a young business entrepreneur program. Each young participant was expected to present a business case for the winning entry. However, the program was going nowhere as the judges weren’t allowing any participant to complete their presentation or go beyond a couple of sentences, and would constantly bombard them with questions after questions. The judges were even firing questions at each other, and answering every question with another question. Every young participant, half their age, were being ripped to pieces with their incessant and often cynical questions. Finally, one of the participants was awarded a ceramic pot of un-definable shape with something inscribed on it, while the others walked out dazed and gasping for breath. Mercifully, the program ended soon.
What the above incident teaches you is the world today is full of people who love to ask tough questions. Interviews, talk shows, blogs, corporate seminars, meetings, vendor discussions, business strategies, IT support, journalism, service level agreements, etc., are all love bombarding someone with truckloads of smart and intelligent sounding questions. Today, asking questions that others cannot answer is the favorite hobby for many people. Hence, many executives nowadays take great pride in asking complicated and smart questions that can make others squirm, shut their mouth or run away from the scene. Also, many people believe just asking a tough question settles the matter without the need to get involved to solve the issue. Secondly, a large percentage of people ask tough questions just for the heck of it, especially in meetings.
The basic reason why many people ask tough questions is mainly to satisfy their ego of making others uncomfortable, cover up their lack of knowledge, or just to impress others. For example, most discussions and arguments you may have observed are all about how someone outsmarted someone else by firing a smart question. Watching someone squirm gives a self-congratulatory sadistic pleasure to many people like, ‘Hah, you should have seen that bozo’s face when I asked him that tricky question.’ But it doesn’t mean people will be using tough and rude questions with everyone, but they will definitely not miss an opportunity to fire it on someone they can afford to be rude with. Anyway, nowadays with the amount of information overload it’s very easy to ask plenty of good, bad, tough, smart, rude, tricky, vague, stupid, dumb and rubbish questions. And a large percentage of those questions just don’t have answers.
However, the habit of asking questions is not a bad habit, but deliberately asking questions that you or others cannot answer is dumb. You can keep asking such questions to eternity, but you will not get any correct answers or solutions. Rude and rubbish questions, even smart sounding ones, often create a lot of problems. Very often, people ask tough questions because they think a tough question will get the necessary answer. But the fact is people avoid people who ask tough questions. Bombarding anyone with tough questions is a futile exercise because you will never get the right answers. It only makes people avoid you, or give you evasive, defensive and incorrect answers. Besides, a shoot the messenger approach will make people tell lies and cover up bad news to prevent their head from being chewed off. Secondly, rough and tough questions simply create stress, anxiety, and fear to a lot of people. Such questions make people commit more mistakes because the brain goes numb with fear. Toughness prevents the truth from being said and people will invent excuses. And the list can go on and on. Maybe rough and tough questions are useful in police interrogations, but rarely necessary in business life. As Bob Parsons said, ‘Every business everywhere is staffed with imperfect human beings and exists by providing a product or service to other imperfect human beings.’ So, if you are a sensible person, you will understand the limitations of our species. To get correct answers or solutions from others you need to ask beautiful questions. Now you may ask what a beautiful question is, and how do you ask one? But a beautiful question cannot be exactly defined, nor is it possible to give you a specific list of beautiful questions that can be used in every situation. However, a beautiful question can be described in many ways. Here are a few ways to learn how to ask beautiful questions.
1. A beautiful question doesn’t have any toxicity, cynicism or tricky content into it. It’s a question that does not trap people or put them in an awkward position. A beautiful question can be a straightforward or direct question, but it’s asked in a non-threatening or non-intimidating way.
2. A beautiful question doesn’t hurt sentiments, make people defensive or point fingers at them in an accusatory manner. People make mistakes and will continue to do many mistakes in their lifetime. It’s quite possible for someone to have completely goofed up on something, lost a major account or did something really stupid. Except in rare cases, there will always be a valid reason for it.
3. Beautiful questions create pleasantness and collaboration. It removes fear and extracts right answers even if the answer is bad news. Successful managers know how to get the right answers from employees by not being intimidating in their approach. Their objective is to solve an issue or a problem, and not get a mischievous pleasure by making people uncomfortable. Beautiful questions help you achieve that.
4. Beautiful questions don’t have a ‘Shoot the messenger’ approach. If you develop the habit of asking beautiful questions, then people will approach you openly for help and advice, instead of thinking, ‘Here comes the ogre to chew our head off.’
5. People who know how to ask beautiful questions don’t thump their fists on tables, or demand an explanation immediately, or try to find a scapegoat.
Finally, to summarize, the challenge for each one of us is to frequently pause and observe ourselves to see if we are asking the right questions. And we can conclude this chapter with a quote from Dorothy Nevill who said, ‘The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing in the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.’