The counterintuitive tricks to asking better questions, according to Harvard research

Son Chris recently shared with me an article by Lila MacLellan that is well worth reading. Now I am able to share it with you.

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Having the ability to ask a question appears to be a uniquely human trait, one that saves us time and energy as we gather resources and information. It also allows us to develop empathy for others and create bonds of trust, even among strangers. Indeed, people who ask more questions are seen as more likable.

And yet many of us don’t ask enough questions, nor the right ones, according to research from Harvard Business School.

Writing in the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, HBS assistant professor Alison Wood Brooks and HBS associate professor Leslie John, who both study negotiations and organizational behavior, argue that we hold back our queries too often, fearful that we’ll seem ill-informed or offensive, or perhaps believing we already have the answers we need.

Whatever the reason, we need to get over it. Asking questions, even when it feels disagreeable, offers serious benefits.

“It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members,” the researchers write. “And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.”

Citing their own studies and previous academic findings from elsewhere, they offered a few counterintuitive guidelines for how to make your questions more effective.

Sometimes “closed” questions work best

We’re often told that open-ended questions keep conversations flowing, where closed questions route to dead ends, but Brooks and John make a useful distinction about when that’s true.

They say we need to assess whether an interaction is more “competitive,” which is when at least one person has an agenda or is probing for sensitive information, or “cooperative,” when two or more people are brainstorming, for instance.

When you’re dealing with a dodgy vendor from whom you’re seeking full disclosure, your conversation is competitive. In this case, the sage advice to ask open-ended questions doesn’t apply. Instead, it can open the door to lies by omission.

During a recent HBR IdeaCast podcast, Brooks offered the example of buying a used iPod to illustrate her point. Consider the open-ended “Tell me about the history of this iPod” to “Has this iPod been damaged?”

Cooperative conversations, on the other hand, really will flow most easily with open-ended questions, which give someone “a long leash” to decide “how am I going to answer this?” said Brooks. They help you discover what’s on a person’s mind.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

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