How to ask The Right Questions
What are the right questions? Which questions do you need to ask if you want to lead yourself and others better? Why are the right questions important?
“A prudent question is one half of wisdom.” – Francis Bacon
Good questions are essential if we want to get the right information.
If we don’t ask the right questions we won’t get the answers we need. Without the necessary information, we won’t be able to make good decisions. If we don’t make good decisions we lose our direction, fail in our leadership of others and can end up ineffective, unhappy or worse.
I found out how important questions are early on in my career because my first role was being a Bomb Disposal Officer.
I was just savouring a coffee from my newly purchased coffee maker when a wide-eyed and out of breath soldier stumbled into my makeshift office. My cup was poised in my hand – the aroma was fantastic – and the thought of drinking it was more alluring than anything I could imagine that this solider might interrupt me with. “This had better be good”, I thought.
“Sir! There is a suspicious package at the gates of the camp!”
I put the cup down; coffee time was over.
It was Bosnia in 2001, and I was a young Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers leading the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (bomb disposal) team in the local region. The conflict in Bosnia had died down some time ago so we were there mainly to clear up the mess, but in the post 9/11 world, the threat of terrorist attack was at the forefront of people’s minds. In this context, an unexplained bag, right up against the front gates of a military camp, was screaming out ‘IED!’ (Improvised Explosive Device), and required immediate and serious attention.
Red wire or blue wire?
Therefore I went to take control of the scene and do an initial threat assessment. I met the guard commander and asked him some questions such as where the package was exactly, what it looked like, who had seen it first, when it had been found, why it was suspicious and how it had got there.
Very quickly a picture emerged that put my mind at ease. One of the guards had seen an old and infirm lady dropping off the parcel. Upon questioning the local interpreters, I found out that this lady was well known to them, as she was a little eccentric, and that she had made similar deliveries before. It was more than likely that this was just a gift for the soldiers. A short trip to visit the lady at her house confirmed that yes, she had just dropped off some biscuits for the troops. It just so happened that she thought that dropping off a ‘surprise’ in an unmarked bag, unannounced, at the front gate to a military base was a good thing to do!
After establishing all of this I was able to go back, safely deal with the package, give the all-clear and return the security levels to normal. I thanked the lady for the kind thought and gift, but asked her to refrain from such ‘surprise’ generosity in the future!
So the right question was not ‘do we cut the red or the blue wire?’ In fact, the right questions were not technical ones at all.
The importance of questions
When you consider your life is under threat then it is very important to properly assess a situation. You have to overcome the ‘fight or flight’ response and use the decision space – the gap between stimulus and response – to work out what to do. In the time given you have to make an assessment. Asking the right questions and getting the right answers is essential before launching into action.
The military, the emergency services and medical services know this and train personnel in decision making. By employing decision making processes and then applying in exercises and real-life situations, to build up experience, such people can become expert decision-makers and can make quick, effective decisions even in high risk environments.
Outside of careers that deal with life-threatening situations very few people get training in asking questions and making decisions, despite that research time and again sights such competencies to be essential to employees and particularly leaders and managers (Harrell, Barbato). The need for decision making is often expressed in other terms such as the need for analysing and overcoming problems (Zenger, Folkman), taking the initiative (Maxwell), setting direction and goals (Giles), good prioritisation, or having a clear vision and strategy for the team, but all these things are related to or dependent upon good decision making.
Do we need decision making tools?
We generally take decision making for granted, after all we each make thousands of decisions every day, some conscious, some unconscious, and rarely need to apply more than our intuition to a problem. But there is a problem. Research, particularly by influential figures such as Daniel Kahneman, has demonstrated that our intuition is amazing but has limits.
Therefore understanding decision making and how to make good decisions is critical to all of us, and good decision making starts with good questions.
The problem with many processes and tools, including those used for decision making, is that they are often non-intuitive and hard to remember. That is why we should start with what we already know and structures that are already embedded.
“A problem well put is half solved.”John Dewey
Start with the questions you already know
When I was training as a Bomb Disposal Officer we were taught a question technique called the ‘Five Ws’ which we used when we approached an incident. The ‘Five Ws’ is an interrogative style employed primarily by journalists and police officers but it is a framework that can be used by anyone to make an appreciation of a given situation.
The idea is that by asking open questions you are more likely to get factual answers by avoiding presuppositions. The simple idea of just having the ‘Five Ws’ of What? Where? When? Who? Why? (along with the added H of ‘How?’) provides an easy to remember checklist that is a useful starting point towards building a rounded picture of any circumstance.
As I have done further research into question technique and applied the principles in my work I have found that it is also useful to add another ‘W’ – that of ‘which?’ – to the list. The ‘which?’ question covers the concept of selection (and therefore of options and risk) and helps to complete the cycle, particularly when we are planning for the future, not just examining an event that has already happened.
This makes seven questions in a total and creates a easily remembered framework. Its easy to recall as its based upon the most common interrogative words that we use in English and also because we find it harder to recall lists about seven or eight items (Buzan).
The application of the interrogatives provides a holistic approach to analysing a situation and making an informed decision. The use of these seven open questions is a technique I have dubbed ‘The Right Questions’.
Using The Right Questions
Seven questions? Surely that is too simple you say! Well, we will come back to that point but the simplicity is a large part of the system’s strength. But, as with any tool or model, the technique is only as good as its application and it is this application of the questions that we need to explore in more depth.
When you learn how to apply the system it is very flexible. My starting point when faced with a challenge – whether it is developing a business case, starting a project, or writing an article – will be to write down the seven Right Questions and start to brainstorm and explore my thoughts under each heading.
My experience of working as a coach and consultant has taught me that The Right Questions approach can be applied to everything from life direction and personal vision, to corporate strategy and organisational change.
I am passionate about serving individual and teams, helping them to face their challenges, achieve wonderful things and have fun while doing it. If I can serve you in this way then I will be fulfilling my goal.
The right questions for life’s journey
In the journey of life we get to travel together with others at different points. Our paths merge, cross and diverge and we never quite know how long we will have to travel alongside people. However long we have, I hope that in our time travelling together I can assist you in refining your direction and encouraging you on to all the amazing things life has in store for you.
Bon voyage et Bon courage!
To find out more about applying and using The Right Questions framework click on the link below:
“The discerning heart seeks knowledge.”Solomon
Buzan, T (2010) Use Your Head, London: BBC
Giles, S (2016) The Most Important Leadership Competencies, According to Leaders Around the World, Harvard Business Review
Harrell, M and Barato, L (2018) Great Managers Still Matter: The Evolution of Google’s Project Oxygen, Google/Re:work
Kahneman, D (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Maxwell, J C (2007) The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, Nashville: Thomas Nelson
Zenger, J and Folkman, J (2014) The Skills Leaders Need at Every Level, Harvard Business Review