May the force be with you: The power of asking

March 26, 2014

Questions are a powerful tool. They are the key to understanding others. Understanding is important for working with clients and teams. Unfortunately most of us often stop asking questions too early which can end up creating more work later on. But it’s a simple thing to improve matters.

A question is used to make a request for information. That’s quite normal and we do it several times a day. But what if we think we have all the information we need? In that case we might not ask and do our own thing instead. But especially in project situations it’s good to have a second look at this behavior.  We’ll take a look at two situations, but then we’ll see later how everything is not as it seems:

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Case A: A project status is presented to the client. The relationship is good and the mood is relaxed. Both teams know each other well. The specialist presents changes made to a complex system and the client seems to be happy. The only thing which may be strange to an observer is that there is a monologue: Only the presenter is speaking.

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Case B: A conversation between team mates. Joe and Bob meet at the coffee machine. Joe is presenting a new idea to Bob. Bob is waiting for a break in the speech and is jumping in as soon as possible, arguing about alternative strategies and approaches. Joe is reacting in the same manner, fighting for his initial ideas. An observer would have probably only seen that Joe and Bob had a discussion.

Sound like two complete different situations? Maybe, but the key to the improvement for both is: Asking! Questions are a really powerful tool. They are the best method to understand someone else’s point of view –  whether you’re a client or a colleague. If we speak, we can’t listen. If we ask, we are open to the aquisition of new information. “I know that I know nothing,” said by the Greek philosopher Socrates, is a good mindset to have for understanding others. I recommend this, especially if you think you understood everything!  Coming back to the two examples and showing the moves which changed the situations completely:

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Case A turnaround: The presentation was stopped and the keyboard was given to the client who had to present the changes himself. In addition the client was encouraged to think aloud. After 3 minutes, one thing was clear: He had a lot of questions and concerns. Beforehand, he simply hadn’t raised them because he had thought to himself, “The experts will know – I probably don’t understand it right”. In this case the specialist left the client facilities with two pages full of improvements, but at least he had prevented himself from falsely believing that the client was satisfied.

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Case B turnaround: After Joe pitches his ideas, Bob asks questions instead of providing his point of view: “What is your idea behind this? Which of our goals does it support? How do you think we should do it in detail?” Joe did indeed have some deeper thoughts, but also stated that he had to reflect on some aspects. Joe and Bob left the coffee corner with the good feeling that something useful would develop, instead of having a battle of wills.

In both situations questioning triggered shared insights which we would have never been seen with the usual approaches. We tend much too quickly to think “I know what’s meant!” Especially in the role of an expert we want to show how good we are. That’s part of the job, right? The question is: Is this the right way to reach the goal? Assuming simply that it’s good to know what a client really thinks about a deliverable, or that it’s good to encourage a colleague to add his knowledge to a shared goal.


But questions do not only create a better understanding, they also straighten the relationship between the actors. If we have the feeling that someone is taking us seriously and tries to understand us, we feel much more visible and valued. Questions simply show interest and create the required space for bidirectional understanding. This resonance is a kind of mental food which all humans need and which they readily reciprocate. This makes interaction much easier and provides the environment with a real cooperative atmosphere.

There are some good methods out there which can help to develop such a general pull-approach:


1. The basic rules of asking

Question yourself first: What is my position here? Why? What may I have missed? It’s a much better starting point if you know about your own mental position. The second step is to find out the same about your counterpart. Ask an open question and comment the reason for your question, e.g. “Can you explain your idea x to me? It‘s interesting for me as…” The open question appeals to the knowledge of the respondent and invites him to a serious dialogue. The background provided with the comment makes it easier for him to target your question. The general approach should be respectful and free of criticism. In addition you can ask in a motivational way, like “Can you explain your cool idea x to me?” Both produce a positive atmosphere which leads to better results. Reassure yourself with confirming questions: “Did I understand you right, that…”


2. The empathy map: Asking without a counterpart

The empathy map is a good tool for a kind of mental switch and to ask yourself: What’s going on in the head of someone else? We use this tool often in team workshops in order to create a better understanding of other points of view. It’s hard if you do it the first time as it feels like a lot of speculation, but nevertheless it changes your focus from your own intellectual world to the world of your counterpart. Sometimes it provides real insights and inspirations; sometimes it only shows that you don’t know enough about the motivations of your client or colleague. But we can assure you: With a little bit training the results become much better.


3. Chunking: Uncovering the world behind a statement

Chunking is a method which creates context. You classify a single statement, task or requirement as a step in a strategy. You can “move” up, down and sideways. If you ask “What is it good for? What does it support?” you move up, towards underlying reasons. If you ask “How do we do it?” you move down, towards single tasks and actions. The question “What is similar?” brings you to ideas at the same level. You’ll create a map of the construction of ideas if you play this game for a while.


All this may sound very basic but unfortunately we don’t follow these ideas very often. The results are cost intensive and discourage misunderstandings: We develop things which our clients don’t need or we spend energy in unproductive discussions which create high opportunity costs. We can improve interaction with others a lot if we manage our ego a little bit better: It’s never too late to ask!


About the author

Andreas Wichmann is a partner at the Endocde AG and adds more than 25 years of experience in project management and team building to our track record. With his expertise in complex group interactions, he designs environments for collaboration, teamwork and cooperative thinking.