Oswald Letter

Asking the right questions is key to finding the right answers

Questionsby Dan Oswald

Many leaders believe they must have all the answers—that it’s their responsibility to have the answer to every question and the solution to every problem. In my estimation, it’s more important to ask the right questions than it is to always have the answer.

You see, it’s the questions that allow people to assess a situation. None of us can have all the answers, especially if we haven’t asked any questions. Questions shed light on a situation. Questions add context to a situation. Questions provide data that help draw the correct conclusion. There isn’t one of us, on our own, who has all the best ideas and all the right answers. Asking questions allows us to benefit from the experiences, insights, and perspectives of other people. Leaders must put ego aside and ask others for their input. Step one in getting to an answer is definitely asking questions.

Of course, you can’t ask just any questions. You must ask the right questions. Not just any old question will do. Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM, said, “The ability to ask the right question is more than half the battle of finding the answer.” If step one to getting the answer is to ask questions, then step two is to ask the right questions. Leaders must ask honest questions with a real desire to get honest answers. Leaders must ask probing questions to get to the right answers. And leaders must ask challenging questions to elicit the very best answers. The right questions can take many forms, but there’s no doubt that not just any question will do.

Asking questions, even the right questions, won’t help you find the answer or solve the problem if you don’t listen—really listen—to answers to those questions. Questions can serve many purposes, but most of all, they allow people to be a legitimate part of the decision-making process and, ultimately, the answer or solution to the problem. You see, questions allow leaders to connect with others who have a stake in finding the right answer. People don’t want to sit on the sidelines and watch while someone else dictates every decision. No! People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Asking the right questions and truly listening to what others have to contribute is the third—and most critical—step in getting to the answer.

Successful people don’t have all the answers; they’re the ones who ask the best questions. The better the questions, the better the answers. And in my experience, asking the right questions—the really good questions—takes work. Like everything else, asking good questions takes experience because finding the right questions, the ones that elicit really insightful and strong answers, comes from a lot of trial and error. So when you ask a question that results in a great answer, consider why. Was it the question itself that got such a great answer? Was it how or when the question was asked? Was it the person answering the question who made it so useful? It could be any of the three, but knowing why the question worked so well will help you know when to ask it again.

Also, leaders must know that there is a rhythm to asking questions if they want to get the best answers. In my experience, you can’t dive right in with the tough direct question if you want a really good answer. In essence, you need to warm up your audience before hitting the toughest, most meaningful questions. You need to build a rapport with the audience. You need to develop trust if you want honest and insightful answers.

For instance, it might help to start with a general question such as, “What do you think?” Once you have your audience talking and sharing their ideas and opinions, then you need to make questions more specific to get to the heart of the matter. But if you jump right in with the specifics, it’s likely that your audience won’t respond as well because the question will come across as abrupt and jarring. Build a rhythm by asking simple, more general questions first, and let your questions build to the more specific and difficult as you establish trust with your audience.

Good leaders know they don’t have to have all the answers but instead need to know how to ask the right questions. And they know that asking the right questions—really good questions—is at the core of getting good answers and solving difficult problems. Good leaders can set their egos aside and get everyone involved in the problem-solving process if they’re willing to ask questions that allow everyone to contribute. Think for a moment about your leadership style. Are you really willing to ask questions to get the best answers?