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How To Ask Beautiful Questions

Apr 25, 2008
Sometime back I was watching a program on a business TV channel where a bunch of reputed CEOs, CFOs, COOs, etc., were judges for a young business entrepreneur program. Each young participant was to present a business case study for the winning entry. However, the program was going nowhere as the judges were not allowing any participant to complete the presentation or go beyond a couple of sentences, and would constantly bombard them with questions after questions. And 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 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.

Today the world 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 about 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 people nowadays take great pride in asking complicated and smart questions that can make others squirm, shut their mouth or run away from the scene. Of course, it is not necessary for the asker to know an answer (or what should be the answer) for his or her own question. But it does not 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. Also many believe just asking a tough question settles the matter without the need to get involved to solve the issue. A large percentage of people ask tough questions just for the heck of it, especially in meetings. Often many people ask tough questions mainly to satisfy their ego of making others uncomfortable, cover up their lack of knowledge, or to impress others. Most discussions and arguments you observe 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."

Nowadays with the amount of information overload it is 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 basically 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. If 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 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 a question as to what is a beautiful question, 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 does not have any toxicity, cynicism or tricky content into it. It is 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 is asked in a non-threatening or non-intimidating way.

2. A beautiful question does not 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 is 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 do not have a "Shoot the messenger" approach. If you develop the habit of asking beautiful questions people approach you openly for help and advise, instead of thinking, "Here comes the ogre to chew our head off."

5. People who know how to ask beautiful questions do not thump on tables, demand an explanation right away or try find a scapegoat.

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 with a quote from Dorothy Nevill, "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."
About the Author
Thejendra BS is an IT manager & author from India. He pens articles on self-improvement, technical, humor, etc, and has published books like Disaster Recovery & Business Continuity, IT Service Management, LIFE-365 and Corporate Wardrobe. Visit http://www.thejendra.com to buy his popular books and articles.
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